troubled diva  

My freelance writing can now be found at
Recently: VV Brown, Alabama 3, Just Jack, Phantom Band, Frankmusik, Twilight Sad, Slaid Cleaves, Alesha Dixon, Bellowhead, The Unthanks, Dizzee Rascal.

On Thursday September 17th, I danced on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Click here to watch, and here to listen.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Gigs of 2009.

Reviews of most of these can be found on my freelance blog.

1. Beyonce
2. Gong
3. Cliff Richard & the Shadows
4. Crystal Stilts, Wet Paint, Manhattan Love Suicides
5. The Unthanks
6. The Specials
7. Neil Young
8. Elbow, The Acorn
9. Gary Numan
10. Lau
11. Late Of The Pier
12. Bat For Lashes, Yeasayer
13. Eurovision Preview Night
14. Lionel Richie
15. Dizzee Rascal
16. Bellowhead, Belshazzar's Feast
17. White Denim
18. David Byrne
19. Telepathe, Times New Viking, Rainbow Arabia, Icy Demons
20. White Lies
21. Unicorn Kid
22. The Nolans
23. La Roux, Heartbeat, Magistrates, The Chapman Family
24. Basement Jaxx
25. Fuck Buttons, Zun Zun Egui
26. Melanie Safka
27. Buzzcocks
28. Rhydian
29. The Phantom Band
30. Slaid Cleaves
31. Ungdomskulen
32. V Festival: Oasis, Lady GaGa, Athlete, Human League, Joe Lean, Miike Snow, Proclaimers, Bjorn Again
33. Glasvegas, Friendly Fires, White Lies, Florence & the Machine
34. Doves
35. Tinchy Stryder
36. Animal Collective
37. Frankmusik
38. VV Brown
39. Easy Star All-Stars
40. Okkervil River, Dawn Landes
41. Portico Quartet, Red, Natalie Duncan
42. The Magic Numbers
43. Alabama 3
44. Keane, Frankmusik
45. La Roux
46. Maximo Park, Bombay Bicycle Club
47. Kaiser Chiefs, Black Kids, Esser
48. Alesha Dixon

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cliff Richard and the Shadows - Nottingham Arena.

You know what? That might just have been my gig of the year. And hence a bugger to write about, without defaulting to gush. So I'll write it up tomorrow, once the dust has settled.

The xx, Beyonce and Gong: take heed. The bar has been raised!

Thursday update: I've been a bit poorly today, so this will have to wait a while longer.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tinchy Stryder and Fuck Buttons.

Over on the freelance blog, you can find gig reviews of Tinchy Stryder (from Friday night), and Fuck Buttons/Zun Zun Egui (from last night).

Enjoyable as it was, Tinchy Stryder's gig was marred by one of those awful DJs (assuming that any actual DJ-ing took place on stage, which I rather doubt) who think that cutting out the sound on each and every hook line constitutes a smart move. (And I do mean every hook line, on all three of the hits.) As those of us of a certain age will remember only too well, mobile DJs used to do this with Jeff Beck's "Hi Ho Silver Lining" in the Seventies. It was annoying then, and it's annoying now.

As for last night's gig, I was tickled by an overheard comment from one of the many earnest young men in the audience, just after support act Zun Zun Egui had finished their set. "They transcend leftfield boundaries!" Oh darling, I wouldn't go quite that far. While during the shall-we-say "challenging" main set from Fuck Buttons, I spent significant amounts of time trying to dispel the memory of an old Biff cartoon from the early 1980s, where two similarly earnest men in long overcoats talked of "juddering, wired monoliths of sound". (In the end, I opted for the non-actionable "thick, monolithic, slow-moving slabs of sound". Well, it was awfully late.)

My next gig's a payer: the fantastic Ungdomskulen at the Royal in Derby on Thursday night (last seen blowing the Young Knives off stage at the Rescue Rooms), in the company of Sarah, SwissToni and our Very Special Guest... GORDON!

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Friday, July 10, 2009

The Ladyboys of Bangkok – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday June 24.

They may hail from the “land of smiles”, but the sixteen impeccably glamorous members of the Ladyboys of Bangkok troupe could be applying for permanent residency here, if their touring schedule is any measure. From now until December, they’ll be taking their “Mile High” show around the country, including a residency at the Edinburgh Festival.

Although their name alone might raise alarmed eyebrows in some quarters, there’s nothing particularly seamy or smutty about the Ladyboys revue, beyond some fairly harmless end-of-the-pier innuendo. This is a show which you safely could take your auntie or your grandmother to – although they’ll probably have beaten you to it at the box office. And judging by the supportive whoops and cheers from some of the more mature ladies in the audience, you could almost start a political movement. Grannies for Trannies, anyone?

The stage set might have been sparse, but the endless dazzling costume changes more than compensated. Sequins and feathers abounded, along with some more daringly revealing outfits that left you wondering just where “lady” ended and “boy” began.

The troupe’s nimbly choreographed lip-synch routines ran the gamut from contemporary pop to show tunes and movie soundtracks – from “I Kissed A Girl” to “My Way” – and the bolder performers took every opportunity to stalk the front rows, stealing whatever smooches they could find. The night ended with the inevitable Abba medley, which brought everyone to their feet. This was classic camp of the highest order, and a thoroughly entertaining night out.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Maxïmo Park – Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday May 20.

Anyone expecting the originally advertised support act was in for a disappointment last night, as The Noisettes turned out to be missing from the bill – mysteriously so, as they are still listed as the support for the remainder of Maxïmo Park’s current tour. Their place was taken by Bombay Bicycle Club: a likeable teenage indie band, whose album is due out in early July. Singer Jack Steadman put in an intriguingly eccentric performance, his face contorted into the sort of cringing, apologetic grimace that you might pull if you had just offended your grandparents with an off-colour joke.

In stark contrast, Maxïmo Park’s Paul Smith – as natty as ever in his trademark black trilby and a close-fitting maroon checked suit – radiated an ebullient, unshakeable confidence from the off, his energy levels never dipping for a single second of his hour and ten minutes on stage. Eyes bulging and arms akimbo, he spent much of the set perched on a raised area at the lip of the stage, allowing even the most tightly crushed punter at the back of the sold-out venue to enjoy a full performance.

For a band whose rabble-rousing, anthemic indie rock was always underpinned with thoughtful lyrics and a leftfield approach, Maxïmo’s latest album is a disappointingly safe and conventional affair, which sees them treading water artistically. Beefed up on stage, the new material worked well enough – particularly recent single The Kids Are Sick Again – but it paled in comparison to crowd favourites such as Graffiti (which opened the set) and Apply Some Pressure (the final encore). And by placing such an emphasis on getting the crowd to leap around and generally go mad, much of the band’s subtlety was lost along the way.

Maxïmo Park used to be a little bit arty, a little bit different. Nowadays, they seem happy to turn themselves into the Kaiser Chiefs. Given their talent and potential, you can’t help wondering whether they’re selling themselves short.

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Spex Fest – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Sunday May 17.

Starting at 5:30 in the afternoon and ending shortly after midnight, Nottingham’s inaugural Spex Fest offered an opportunity to sample six experimental indie bands – most of them American – in a well-chosen line-up which showcased the diversity of the current scene.

Following opening sets from Lovvers and Shitty Limits, Icy Demons (from Chicago) took to the stage at 7:45. Arguably the most technically accomplished live performers of the day, the band played a dazzlingly eclectic set, drawing on influences that ranged from jazzy prog-rock to funk and dub, all underpinned with a keenly rhythmic intensity. If you’ve been mourning the demise of Stereolab, then Icy Demons might just be the band for you.

Rainbow Arabia (from California) are a boy-girl duo who combine dance-derived electronica with Middle Eastern influences, overlain with obscure, echo-heavy vocals and pealing guitar lines. They took a while to hit their stride – but when they did, the effect was compelling.

Times New Viking (from Columbus, Ohio) took things back to raw, lo-fi basics, with a thrashy, brutal simplicity that stood in stark contrast to the previous two acts. Appealing enough in small doses, there was something a little too one-dimensional about their approach, which would have benefited from a sharper sense of dynamics.

Telepathe (from Brooklyn) were perhaps the strangest, most awkward and most challenging act of the day, blending girlish innocence with an unsettling sense of menace. Melissa Livaudais and the splendidly named Busy Gangnes stood sweetly behind their keyboards and percussion, singing mostly in unison with frail, emotionless, unschooled voices – while a booming, throbbing, deafening maelstrom of sound crashed around the room.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Easy Star All-Stars, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday May 7.

At first, they sound like a novelty act – but on closer inspection, there’s a real seriousness of purpose behind Michael Goldwasser’s Easy Star All-Stars project. It takes a certain amount of brass neck for a bunch of mostly American and Jamaican reggae musicians to dedicate themselves to their chosen task: that of producing thoughtful, inventive and entertaining full-length covers of classic British concept albums. But instead of coming across as flippant or sacrilegious, the band’s underlying respect for their source material – Dark Side Of The Moon, OK Computer and most recently Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – shines through, breathing new life into the familiar songs.

There are eight people in the current touring version of the band, with most vocals split between the statuesque Kirsty Rock, the effervescent Menny More and the beaming, calming Rasta presence of Ras I Ray. Barring a couple of self-penned openers, the lengthy set divided fairly evenly between the Floyd, Radiohead and Beatles covers. The selections from Sgt. Pepper were lighter and cheerier, with the occasional artfully altered lyric – those cellophane flowers in "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" are now red, gold and green, for instance. But where Dark Side and OK Computer can tend towards the oppressively bleak, the All-Stars didn’t let the subject matter stand in the way of serving up a good time. If anything, a little more English gloom wouldn’t have gone amiss – but perhaps this wouldn’t have played so well with the crowd, sections of which were bordering on the delirious by the end of the night.

There were a couple of misfires. The Beat’s Ranking Roger showed up for a brief guest vocal, but sheepishly resorted to cribbing the lyrics from his phone. Considering that he only had one verse to sing, it was difficult to feel much sympathy. And the encore section dragged badly – firstly with Kirsty’s over-stretched attempts to re-create the vocal drama of the Floyd’s "Great Gig In The Sky", and secondly with an interminable meet-the-band jam session that brought the show to an anti-climactic finish. But set against these were a sparkling dub-style take on "When I’m 64", a lush, emotional "Breathe", a finely crafted "Paranoid Android", a complex yet danceable "Money", and much more besides.

There’s a good reason why this bunch have been almost permanent fixtures in the upper reached of the US Billboard reggae charts for most of the decade, and it was a pleasure to hear them weave their unlikely magic in front of such an appreciative audience.

COMING SOON: The Noisettes and - but of course! - an extensive preview of Eurovision 2009.

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Doves – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday May 5.

The band themselves might be sick of the constant comparisons, but it’s hard to witness Doves’ return from the wilderness – it’s been four years since the last album – without remembering Elbow’s position this time last year. Both bands deal in a similar sort of weather-beaten Mancunian wistfulness: blending the melancholy with the uplifting, and addressing themselves more to the individual listener than the collective throng. And both bands have come back re-energised: offering fresh new twists on their classic sound, and trusting that the quality of the music alone will see them through.

But where Elbow’s Guy Garvey plays the showman, actively seeking a direct emotional connection with his audience, Doves’ Jimi Goodwin cuts an altogether more distanced, elusive, almost private figure. His band aren’t there to force their own interpretations of their music upon you. What you make of the songs is up to you. Everything’s left open-ended: from the impressionistic lyrics through to the obscure movie footage on the back wall.

At times, it seemed as if everyone in the room was lost in their own private world: concentrating on the exquisitely played material, without letting their faces give anything away. And then occasionally, an anthem like "Black And White Town" or "Pounding" would punch through: breaking the spell, and sending hands flying skywards.

A four-song encore climaxed with "There Goes The Fear", whose coda had the whole band bashing out funky percussion rhythms, their regular instruments abandoned. It formed the perfect moment for an unscripted extra encore, especially for the “Nottingham ravers” in the house who had been bellowing for it all night: the 1992 cult club classic "Space Face", recorded back when Doves were still known as Sub Sub. It was the one truly spontaneous moment of the night – and all the more welcome for it.

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Rhydian Roberts – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Friday May 1.

With both Leon Jackson and Same Difference dropped by their record labels, Rhydian Roberts has turned out to be the dark horse from The X Factor’s 2007 finals. Last night at the Royal Concert Hall, in front of a packed and adoring audience of all ages, the reason for his enduring success became clear. This was no cheap cash-in job from someone who had been sold an empty dream, hoovering up the remaining pennies while there was still time. Instead, we were treated to a lavish stage show – there were eleven performers on stage, including a delightful four-piece string section – and a carefully rehearsed, musically ambitious, stylistically diverse and artistically satisfying musical experience.

The show opened with a lengthy, dramatic medley of two Meat Loaf numbers. Rhydian threw himself into one of the most challenging vocal performances of the night, stalking the stage like a man possessed, and wringing every last drop of drama from the material. It was an awesome statement of intent: grandiose, bombastic – and, let’s be truthful here, ever so slightly preposterous.

For Rhydian is a unique performer in every way – that extraordinary voice, those strange mannerisms, that gleaming white quiff – and tasteful understatement just isn’t his style. Sometimes, he played upon his eccentricities for laughs. His take on David Bowie’s "Heroes" was an exercise in high camp, and his cheesy dance routine in the middle of "Macarthur Park" was an absolute hoot – “like Michael Jackson meets Simon Cowell”, as one of the fans on his official forum observed.

Weirdly, none of these theatrical jinks got in the way of Rhydian’s remarkable ability to stir our emotions, when the material called for it. The night’s artistic highlight belonged to a simple, traditional song called "Myfanwy", which was sung in its original Welsh. It was a tender, heartfelt performance, sung with utter conviction. As the song reached its climax, a Welsh male voice choir appeared on the overhead video screen, adding their warm, rich tones to the song’s closing moments.

Other elements were harder to justify. Did Rhydian really need to abandon the stage for three lengthy costume changes, leaving his band to entertain us with a curious selection of instrumental numbers? And was it altogether wise to pick no less than five numbers from Shirley Bassey’s back catalogue, including the last three songs of the night? No matter, this was a sparkling show from a determined and likeable young talent, who has made his mark in his own very special way. Reality TV wannabes may come and go, but Rhydian Roberts is here for the long haul.

Set list:
Medley: I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That) / Not A Dry Eye In The House
The Reason
Coming Home Again
Instrumental: Albinoni Adagio
The Living Tree
There Will Be A Time
Instrumental: Classical Gas
Macarthur Park
To Where You Are
Instrumental: Hypnotic
Get The Party Started
The Show Must Go On
This Is My Life
The Impossible Dream

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

NME Radar Tour: La Roux, Heartbreak, Magistrates, The Chapman Family – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday April 29.

Sticking out like a raw, throbbing thumb on the NME’s latest package of up-and-coming young bands, The Chapman Family faced the hardest job of the night: warming up the still sparse crowd, at the awkwardly un-rock-and-roll hour of 7pm, with their intense, thrashy, guitar-heavy squall. To add to the challenge, they were forced to compete for our attention with an annoyingly distracting overhead video screen, which was mostly given over to advertising the NME brand and the tour’s mobile phone sponsors. Worse still, they had to suffer the indignity of performing beneath an endlessly repeating multiple choice text competition: “Which town do The Chapman Family come from?”

To their credit, none of this deterred the band from delivering an impressively full-tilt, committed performance. Mercifully, the screen was switched off during the remaining three sets.

Notably less self-assured than their predecessors, Magistrates were likeable, but lacking in charisma. They were name-checked as a band to watch by Dawn from Black Kids, when she spoke to the Post last October – and it was easy to see the musical connection, as both acts deliver a light, tuneful, breezy brand of indie-pop. If you like Franz Ferdinand and MGMT, then Magistrates may well be up your street.

Heartbreak belong to the classic tradition of synth duos, but with an added drummer. Their singer sported a spivvy pencil moustache, teamed with a close-fitting leather blouson which sported the sort of shoulder padding last seen on Gary Numan in the early Eighties. Fully aware of his own preposterousness, he strutted and preened with a winning sense of self-belief, occasionally breaking into interpretive mime, and even a brief moonwalk. The girls down the front loved him, and he lapped up their adoration. The music drew on hi-NRG and Italo-disco influences, and was strongly reminiscent of the much hyped electroclash movement of 2002. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

Almost unknown at the start of the year, La Roux have been one of this year’s big breakthrough acts. Astonishingly, they had never even played live until just over two months ago, and so their learning curve has been a steep and public one. Backed by two synth players, Elly Jackson cut a startling presence on stage, her outsized quiff sculpted into a gravity-defying vertical point. Plagued by technical hitches in the middle of the set, she shrugged off the problems with self-deprecating humour. (“Thank you for forgiving me. I wouldn’t have done!”)

Somehow, this lack of slickness reinforced Elly’s compellingly flawed yet strangely winning qualities. Yes, her pitch control is all over the place, and she undoubtedly has a “Marmite” voice. You’ll either cover your ears in horror at the shrill screechiness of it all – or you’ll recognise that La Roux are all about celebrating human frailty and imperfection, and you’ll end up loving them all the more for it.

For in this age of airbrushed, Auto-tuned pop robots, who never quite seem fully real, it’s refreshing that the charts can still make way for a quirky girl with weird hair, an odd voice – and some cracking tunes to match.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Basement Jaxx - Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday April 21st.

Two and a half years on from their last album, it feels like Basement Jaxx are itching to get back in the game. Instead of waiting for their forthcoming album Scars to be released (it's due in May or June), they've broken with convention, touring the new material before anyone has a chance to hear it elsewhere.

Perhaps the purpose of this tour, which kicked off the night before in Newcastle, is simply to remind us that Basement Jaxx are still a going concern, and anything but a spent force? If so, then it's a canny if unusual move.

The new stuff sounds good enough – particularly the addictively thumping new single "Raindrops", which the band had only performed once before – and appetites were duly whetted for the recorded versions, which will include guest spots from the likes of Yoko Ono and Lightspeed Champion.

But it was the band's sterling back catalogue which the capacity crowd had come to hear, and it was songs like the strident "Good Luck" (which opened the show), the ridiculously cheery 1920s throwback "Do Your Thing" and the relentlessly building momentum of Slarta John's "Jump N' Shout" which drew the loudest cheers from the surprisingly youthful audience.

The ten-strong line-up divided equally between the musicians and a fluctuating team of up to five guest vocalists, whose every re-appearance signalled yet another change of outfit. The outfits drew heavily on early 1980s hip hop influences, with plenty of bold primary colours, and the brilliant computer-generated animations at the back of the stage continued this bright, colourful theme.

As ever, the core creative duo of Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton kept a relatively low profile, allowing free rein to the crew at the front of the stage. The diva-esque Vula Malinga was as loveably sassy as ever, the more lithe Joy Malcolm busted some amazing dance moves, and the interaction between all the performers felt fresh, spontaneous, sometimes cheekily provocative, and always full of fun.

The 100-minute set peaked with a thunderous, roof-raising "Where's Your Head At", which had pretty much everyone in the room pogoing on the spot and furiously pumping their fists. Bizarrely, it was prefaced by the opening lines of "Three Times A Lady", which cut off just as Lionel Richie was telling us that "there's something I must say out loud". The Jaxx are never anything less than eclectic, and their spirit of inclusion and open-mindedness is one of their greatest strengths – but who would have guessed that dear old Lionel would rank as one of their muses?

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lionel Richie – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Monday March 30.

Lionel Richie doesn’t exactly shy away from the superlatives. “I’m having the best night of my life, right here on this stage tonight!” he exclaimed, just before the encore – and given his seemingly boundless enthusiasm, which never flagged for a second during last night’s epic 24-song set, we could almost believe him.

Displaying all the hyped-up energy of a man half his age, the 59-year old Richie was in no danger of resting on his laurels. His sheer love of performing radiated from every sweat-soaked pore, and his easy, unforced charisma proved instantly infectious with his adoring audience. By the fourth number – a gracious and delightful rendition of Penny Lover from the career-defining Can’t Slow Down album – happy couples were swaying contentedly in the aisles, arms draped around each other’s shoulders.

Lionel’s strongest suit is the love song, and his most successful love songs – Truly, Stuck On You, Endless Love – are unashamedly romantic celebrations of strong, committed and lasting unions. You hear them as first dances at weddings, or as anniversary dedications on the radio. They don’t seek to say anything particularly new, and some of them teeter on the brink of downright corniness – but when you witness the reactions that they provoke amongst the faithful, it’s hard to remain cynical for long. Even the corniest of them all – the evergreen Three Times A Lady and the deathless Hello – had the ring of sincerity about them. For that’s Lionel’s art: to turn age-old sentiments into universal truths, and to make even the most over-used rhymes sound as if they had never been written before.

As for the more uptempo numbers – of which there were plenty – the musical emphasis leant more towards rock than funk. A pounding Running With The Night played to all the strengths of the five-piece band, and an extended Dancing On The Ceiling closed the main set in storming fashion, raising cheers as it dropped briefly into the opening bars of Van Halen’s Jump.

Surprisingly, there was just one selection from the newly released Just Go album: a duet with contemporary R&B superstar Akon, whose contribution was relayed from the giant video screens above the stage. Perhaps it wouldn’t have hurt to plug the new material a little harder. But then again, we were there to hear the classics – and from the opening Easy to the final All Night Long, the irrepressible, irresistible and hugely likeable Lionel Richie made it his business to give us all that we could possibly want.

Set list:
All Around The World
Just Go
Penny Lover
Just For You
Stuck On You
Tender Heart
Ballerina Girl
Running With The Night
Say You Say Me
Wandering Stranger
Lady (You Bring Me Up)
Brick House
Three Times A Lady
Sail On
Dancing On The Ceiling
Endless Love
Don’t Stop The Music
My Destiny
All Night Long (All Night)

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Animal Collective, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday March 23rd.

Leftfield experimentalism and commercial success rarely go hand in hand – but nine albums down the line, something about Animal Collective’s unique, uncompromising approach has finally clicked with a wider audience. On stage at a sold-out Rescue Rooms, they pushed their sound well away from the sweet pop hooks that have crept into newer recorded work – submerging their melodies in a soupy, echo-drenched and ear-splitting mix, and testing the stamina of newer, less committed followers. Each track flowed seamlessly into the next, building an intense, powerful and all-consuming mood.

In time-honoured indie fashion, the three performers barely acknowledged the tightly packed crowd. Instead, they hunched studiously over their electronic equipment, obscured in semi-darkness. Above them, abstract moving images were projected onto a gigantic inflatable sphere. Below them, waves of thick, multi-layered sound crashed over our heads – battering some into stupefied submission, and coaxing others into twitchy, head-bobbing motion.

The first forty minutes were the hardest work: ponderous, proggy, and teetering on the brink of self-indulgence. Thankfully, a sprightly Lion In A Coma marked the turning point, ushering in a more rhythmic, physical second half. The band’s recent single My Girls was saved for the encore. It was rapturously – and gratefully – received.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Late of the Pier - Nottingham Bodega Social, Thursday March 12.

Despite enjoying Top Forty success last year with their debut album Fantasy Black Channel – and becoming our most successful band for many years in the process – Late of the Pier have yet to stage a large scale homecoming gig. Instead, they’ve opted to put on grassroots shows in small venues: firstly at the Chameleon Arts Café in December, where the set had to be cut short after thirty minutes after fears that the floor would collapse on them (“Don’t dance, or else you’ll die!”), and secondly at a “secret” show at the Bodega last night.

Publicised entirely via word of mouth – no press, no Facebook, not even a stray Twitter – the venue attracted a fiercely loyal crowd, many of whom would remember the band from their formative days as Liars Club regulars, at the same venue.

The forty-five minute set opened with a new song. By this band’s standards, it was a subdued, restrained, almost conventional affair – but any fears that commercial success had smoothed out their rougher edges were dispelled mid-set with a second, gloriously off-kilter new number. Starting out as jerky, staccato new wave, it morphed into a slow passage (causing certain over-excited punters to start stroking each others’ faces), before bursting into an almost heavy metal section and ending with atonal electronic bleeps and squelches.

“We’re playing this gig to demonstrate how broken our equipment is”, quipped the singer – and true enough, the set was almost derailed a couple of times by technical hitches – but nothing was going to stop this band from whipping its fans into a chaotic, near-riotous frenzy. During the wildly popular Focker, the left hand speaker stack almost toppled over, sending beer flying over one of the keyboards. Meanwhile, the Bodega’s security guy worked so diligently in quelling the crowd surfers, that he was thanked for his efforts mid-set.

At the final number climaxed, the singer joined the moshers – flinging himself into the front rows, where he was borne triumphantly aloft. It was a fitting end to a show that was thrilling, daring, and a rare privilege to witness.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Crystal Stilts, Wet Paint, The Manhattan Love Suicides – Nottingham Chameleon Arts Café, Wednesday February 25.

(The next instalment of Which Decade Is Tops For Pops will be posted later today, probably mid-evening. Until then, here's what I got up to last night, on behalf of t'local paper.)

It might not be the highest profile of venues (and unless you know exactly where to look, you’ll struggle to find it), but the Chameleon on Angel Row is currently hosting some of the most exciting grassroots gigs in the city. Because of the lack of publicity (you’ll probably need to be on Facebook), there was a sense of having stumbled across a well-kept secret, far away from the shallow hipster pack.

The Manhattan Love Suicides churned out a low-fi, fuzzed-out racket, channelling elements of 1966-era Velvet Underground, 1976-era Ramones and 1986-era Jesus And Mary Chain. The playing was simple, fierce and precise; the effect was mesmerising and energising.

Wet Paint appeared to have recruited Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls on bass and Scooby-Doo’s Thelma on drums. They were the most conventionally indie band of the night, and perhaps this counted slightly against them.

Like half the hottest acts of the past two years, Crystal Stilts hail from Brooklyn. As with their two predecessors on the bill, their drummer is female. On record, they mostly sound like sulky Mary Chain copyists. On stage, they quickened their rhythms, expanded their range, and came to full and glorious life. It was a privilege to experience them at such close quarters.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Kaiser Chiefs, Black Kids, Esser - Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday February 22.

If so-called “wonky pop” is a genre which we’re going to have to start taking seriously, then at least Esser makes a better fist of it than most of 2009’s crop of eager young hopefuls. (You know the ones: all shiny new record contracts, “directional” hairdos and over-zealous image consultants.) Stylistically, he was all over the place, cheerfully plundering anything that took his fancy from pop’s last three decades. Performance-wise, he didn’t let the crowd’s polite indifference stand in the way of putting on a confident, mostly convincing show.

Following appearances at the Rescue Rooms in June and Trent University in October, Black Kids found themselves in town for a third time, on their biggest stage yet. Although not exactly a natural arena act, their set scaled up better than might have been expected – especially given the rough edges that were on display just a few months ago. A little more variety in tone and pace would have served them well, but it’s still relatively early days for this cheerful and likeable band, whose well-executed indie-pop did a fine job of warming the arena up for the main attraction.

Given the disappointing performance of their third album, and the complete commercial failure of their last single, you might expect the Kaiser Chiefs to be feeling the strain by now. But when it comes to staging a crowd-pleasing show in a major venue, their status as one of this country’s most popular and effective live acts remains unassailable.

Bounding onto the stage in a haze of thick smoke, singer Ricky Wilson began his performance at full tilt, and barely dropped it down a notch for the full ninety minutes. A series of little posing platforms had been placed around the front and the sides of the stage, allowing him to give full expression to his exhibitionist urges. Occasionally, he would scale one of the lighting rigs, in order to dangle precariously above the capacity crowd. Towards the end of the main set, he darted into the wings and re-emerged moments later at the rear of the hall, perched on a slightly larger platform and bellowing his key message: “We are the Kaiser Chiefs!”

For while their detractors might find them smug and shallow, the whole essence of the Kaiser Chiefs is optimistic, celebratory, inclusive – and yes, unashamedly self-glorifying. Their songs might be peppered with clever lyrical twists here and there – but when all’s said and done, they’re not exactly the deepest songs in the world. Indeed, many of their most popular numbers – Ruby, Never Miss A Beat, Oh My God – scarcely seem to be about anything at all, barring a vague cynicism about the hollowness of modern life which sometimes teeters on the brink of outright sneering. As such, they make perfect anthems for 10,000 eager souls to roar along to – stabbing their fists in the air and having the time of their lives, but without ever needing to engage with the music on a deeper emotional level.

Subtle as a flying mallet they may be, but the Kaiser Chiefs – and the excitable Mr. Wilson in particular – are masters of giving their followers exactly what they want: punchy stadium anthems, delivered with precision and panache. Depending on your point of view, last night’s show was either a headache-inducing pantomime of empty gestures, or a belting, barn-storming and brilliant night out.

Set list:
Spanish Metal
Every Day I Love You Less And Less
Everything Is Average Nowadays
Heat Dies Down
You Want History
Saturday Night
Good Days Bad Days
Na Na Na Na Naa
Love’s Not A Competition (But I’m Winning)
Like It Too Much
Modern Way
Half The Truth
Never Miss A Beat
I Predict A Riot
Take My Temperature
The Angry Mob

Tomato In The Rain
Thank You Very Much
Oh My God

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Portico Quartet, Red, Natalie Duncan – Nottingham Malt Cross, Thursday February 19.

Thanks to the efforts of Nottingham’s excellent Dealmaker Records, the Malt Cross played host to a commendably diverse line-up of artists: a folk/soul singer-songwriter, a beat-boxing turntablist and a Mercury-nominated progressive jazz quartet.

Although visibly shaken by the unavailability of her backing band, coupled with a series of unfortunate technical glitches, local artist Natalie Duncan turned out to be a smouldering revelation. An intense, emotive yet controlled performer, her beautiful vocals carried echoes of early 1970s artists such as Minnie Riperton and Linda Lewis.

Squeezed into the far side of the venue’s uniquely challenging mezzanine stage, Red opened and closed his set with some amazing beat-boxing, his deceptively relaxed demeanour making it all look so easy. His turntable skills were no less impressive - particularly on Seen, his best known track.

They might have started out as South Bank buskers, but the Portico Quartet’s moody, cerebral style is more suited to the concert hall than the pavement these days. As such, their music proved an awkward fit for the convivial, chatty crowd at the Malt Cross. For those with the patience to concentrate, there were ample rewards to be reaped – but despite the undeniably exquisite playing, a little more colour and mischief wouldn’t have gone amiss.

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NME Shockwaves Tour – Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday February 11.

These annual NME package tours can be patchy affairs. For every band who leap-frogs to greater success (Coldplay, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys), plenty more are destined to fall by the wayside (hands up, who remembers Campag Velocet, Alfie, Mumm-Ra or JJ72?).

Following below-par showings in 2007 and 2008, this year’s line-up marked a return to form. Florence and the Machine opened the show, with a well-received set that showcased Florence Welch’s powerful vocal capabilities. Florence was at her best on the more intense, dramatic numbers, which carried distinct echoes of Siouxsie and the Banshees. If she can rein in the ditsy bohemian act, and carry herself less like an art student and more like an artist, then her future should be assured.

Although the most orthodox band on the bill – we’ve heard these early New Order/Bunnymen influences many times before – White Lies proved to be the surprise hit of the night, building their comparatively lengthy set up to a satisfying crescendo, and demonstrating an efficient grasp of stagecraft.

They might be the superior band on record, but Friendly Fires struggled to retain the momentum set by White Lies. Their sound mix was sludgy, their playing lacked focus, and there was something faintly irritating about front man Ed Macfarlane’s over-strenuous cavortings. That said, nothing could spoil the impact of minor-league gems such as In The Hospital, Jump In The Pool or the sublime Paris. Perhaps this was just an off night?

Headliners Glasvegas have come a long way since their self-effacing half-hour set at the Bodega last January. They carry themselves differently these days. There’s more assurance, more authority, and even the first glimmers of a rapport with their audience. Rock City suited them perfectly, and James Allan returned our love with a smile and a bow. Despite an overly booming, bass-heavy mix, the night belonged to them.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Keane - Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday February 1st.

According to Oscar Wilde, “being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know”. But where countless identikit indie bands strive unconvincingly to maintain their artful “we’re just like you” anti-images, Keane’s uncontrived ordinariness sits at the heart of who they are and what they do. More than most stadium-level acts of their generation, they have succeeded in minimising the gap between band and audience. Sure, singer Tom Chaplin might have busted out a few rockstar moves – but there was nothing aloof or remote about his sweaty antics, and the unselfconscious way he urged us to get on our feet and show our enthusiasm.

For those who like their stars to act like stars, Keane’s basic lack of charisma will always be a turn-off. They have been called bland, boring, the musical equivalent of beige. But for those who love the band’s music, and who find their own emotions reflected back at them by keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley’s yearning, heartfelt lyrics, the critics couldn’t be more wrong.

Chaplin’s vocals are perhaps his band’s greatest asset. Clear, resonant and pitch-perfect, he rode the soaring melodies with a chorister’s precision. Behind him, Rice-Oxley’s pounding keyboards dominated the sound as ever, fleshed out by unofficial fourth member Jesse Quin’s bass guitar. From time to time, Chaplin picked up a guitar or provided additional keyboards – but the simpler, stripped-down arrangements remained the most successful.

With all but two tracks from current album Perfect Symmetry getting an airing, the band worked hard to showcase their new material in the best possible light. But while the anthemic title track played to all their strengths, other more adventurous excursions – the Bowie-esque Better Than This, the skittering electronics of You Haven’t Told Me Anything – gave the impression of a band struggling valiantly to move forward, but in danger of burying the qualities that made them so popular in the first place.

Set list:
The Lovers Are Losing
Bend And Break
Everybody's Changing
Again And Again
Better Than This
A Bad Dream
This Is The Last Time
Try Again
Snowed Under
The River
You Haven't Told Me Anything
Leaving So Soon?
You Don't See Me
Perfect Symmetry
Somewhere Only We Know
Crystal Ball

Playing Along (Tom solo)
Black Burning Heart
Is It Any Wonder?

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Buzzcocks - Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday January 21.

Over the past couple of years, an increasing number of veteran acts have opted to perform their classic albums in full. The Human League toured Dare in 2007, Gary Numan toured Replicas in 2008 – and this year, Manchester’s original punk pioneers have taken the concept a step further, playing their first two albums in their entirety.

Released in March and September of 1978, Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites caught the Buzzcocks riding an extraordinary wave of creative energy. As the initial head-rush of hardcore punk idealism faded away, they broke ranks with the herd and forged a fresh, clean sound that blended classic songcraft with cutting edge modernism. Over thirty years later, the material sounds as timeless as ever.

To the delight of any purists in the audience, both albums were played back to back, in their original track sequence, without any interruption. It was a bold move, which required a certain patience from the eager moshers down the front. The band’s biggest and best loved hit Ever Fallen in Love was buried in the middle of the set, rather than being saved for the climax. It was one of just two singles to be aired, the other being the equally lovelorn and transcendent I Don’t Mind.

For the thirty minute encore, our patience was rewarded. One by one, all the remaining classic Buzzcocks singles – and their accompanying B-sides – were wheeled out, again in fastidiously chronological order, ending with a gloriously messy thrash through Steve Diggle’s Harmony In My Head.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Chris Brown – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday January 4th.

He’s still only in his teens, but R&B’s latest and hottest superstar has already come a long way since making his UK chart debut, almost exactly three years ago. And on the second night of his first ever overseas stadium tour, this small town boy made good couldn’t afford to be complacent as he faced the challenge of building a live reputation here from scratch.

On the evidence of last night’s hugely entertaining show, he won’t have much to worry about. Deafening pyrotechnic bangs and equally ear-shredding squeals greeted his entrance – strapped to a wire cable, and slowly descending head-first towards the stage.

As the opening song Wall To Wall got underway, and the ten-strong dance troupe began to strut their stuff, it became clear that this would be more of a visual spectacle than a conventional concert. Apart from the drummer and the DJ, all of the music was pre-recorded – including all of the backing vocals, and even some of Brown’s lead vocals (although in fairness, his lip-synching was kept to a tolerable minimum). If a song contained a guest vocal, such as Lil’ Wayne’s rap on Gimme That or Jordin Sparks’ verses on No Air, then the vocal was simply played from tape.

If Chris had been any less of a performer, we could have been looking at an embarrassing flop. Thankfully, he possessed enough charisma and energy to carry the show virtually single-handedly.

Just as the corny audience participation stunts threatened to take over, Chris brought on his secret weapon. To gasps of astonished delight, his girlfriend Rihanna casually strolled onto to the stage, dressed in a simple top and jeans, singing the opening lines to Umbrella. The couple performed it as a duet, with Chris adding some new lines and even his own chorus: “You can be my Cinderella, ella, ella…”

Rihanna stayed around just long enough to treat us to a full vocal version of Live Your Life, before wandering back into the wings with a smile and a wave – leaving Chris to face his newly jealous female fanbase. “I apologise for bringing a lady on stage”, he simpered. “You know I love you.”

The surprises didn’t stop there. A few minutes later, Brown and two of his male dancers re-appeared at the back of the main floor, hidden under a tarpaulin. This was whipped away to reveal a flimsy disc-shaped performing area, which was then winched halfway up to the roof, as fireworks fizzed beneath it. Ropes were used to tilt the disc at varying angles, allowing Chris to mime a couple of sexy “slow jams” directly to the back rows of the venue, or back out towards the main arena. And if this wasn’t quite enough excitement, he ripped his vest off for good measure, hurling it into the clawing throng below.

From then on, it was a straightforward home sprint to the end. Having changed into some fetching beige leisure wear, Chris belted out a sequence of his biggest hits: Run It, With You, No Air and Kiss Kiss. His biggest hit Forever was saved for the encore, its live vocals filtered to produce the required machine-like effect.

This may not have been one of the most musically authentic shows that the Arena has ever seen, but it was certainly one of its more entertaining displays of crowd-pleasing showmanship.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mike's gigs of 2008.

1. Leonard Cohen - Manchester Opera House - June 19th (10)
2. Liza Minnelli - Royal Concert Hall - May 30th (10)
3. Elbow - Leicester De Montfort - October 16th (10)
4. Late Of The Pier, Fan Death - Chameleon Arts Café - November 30th (10)
5. Elbow - Rock City - April 14th (10)
6. White Denim - Bodega Social Club - July 7th (10)
7. The Dodos, Euros Childs - Bodega Social Club - September 14th (10)
8. Gary Numan (Replicas tour) - Rock City - March 5th (10)
9. Lou Reed (Berlin tour) - Royal Concert Hall - June 26th (10)
10. Gong - The Forum, London - June 15th (10)

11. Fleet Foxes, J.Tillman - Trent Uni - November 2nd (9)
12. Duran Duran, The Duke Spirit - Arena - July 6th (9)
13. British Sea Power, Make Model - Rescue Rooms - January 22nd (9)
14. The Breeders - Trent Uni - April 10th (9)
15. Girls Aloud, The Saturdays - Arena - May 20th (9)
16. Yazoo - Royal Concert Hall - June 11th (9)
17. Public Enemy - Rock City - May 28th (9)
18. Duffy - Bodega Social Club - March 7th (9)
19. Holy Fuck - Bodega Social Club - October 15th (9)
20. Glasvegas - Bodega Social Club - January 31st (9)

21. Lorna Luft: Songs My Mother Taught Me - Royal Concert Hall - February 11th (9)
22. Yazoo - Civic Hall Wolverhampton - June 12th (9)
23. The Hold Steady - Rock City - December 9th (9)
24. Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, Congregation - Bodega Social Club - August 13th (9)
25. Barry Adamson - Rescue Rooms - April 6th (8)
26. The Beat, Neville Staple - Rescue Rooms - March 6th (8)
27. Alison Moyet - Royal Concert Hall - January 23rd (8)
28. Laura Marling - Rescue Rooms - November 4th (8)
29. Show Of Hands with Miranda Sykes - Rescue Rooms - November 27th (8)
30. Nouvelle Vague, Gabriella Cilmi - Rescue Rooms - February 7th (8)

31. Human League, ABC, Heaven 17 (The Steel City Tour) - Royal Concert Hall - December 3rd (8)
32. Spiers & Boden - The Maze - September 15th (8)
33. The Temptations, YolanDa Brown - Royal Concert Hall - October 29th (8)
34. UK Eurovision Preview Party (Ani Lorak, Bucks Fizz, Sirusho, Nanne Grönvall, Laka, Maria Haukaas Storeng, Isis Gee, Morena) - The Scala, London - April 25th (8)
35. System 7 - Rescue Rooms - February 15th (8)
36. Faustus - Playhouse - September 11th (7)
37. Drive-By Truckers - Rescue Rooms - August 7th (7)
38. Vampire Weekend - Sheffield Academy - October 22nd (7)
39. Martha Wainwright, Angus & Julia Stone - Rock City - November 3rd (7)
40. CSS - Rescue Rooms - October 13th (7)

41. Joan As Police Woman - Rescue Rooms - December 10th (7)
42. Black Kids, Team Waterpolo - Rescue Rooms - July 2nd (6)
43. Y Not Festival (Whiskycats, The Rusticles, Esteban, The Moutown Project, The Fallout Theory, New Groove Formation, Max Raptor, Toufique Ali, Anthea Neads, Jackel) - Pikehall - August 1st (6)
44. Menomena - Rescue Rooms - February 28th (6)
45. The Twilight Sad - Bodega Social Club - March 25th (6)
46. Pete Burns - Nightingale Birmingham - April 5th (6)
47. The Rascals - Rescue Rooms - June 4th (6)
48. John Barrowman - Royal Concert Hall - April 9th (6)
49. Westlife, Hope - Arena - June 24th (6)
50. Laura Veirs - The Maze - February 12th (6)

51. The Ting Tings - Rock City - September 24th (6)
52. Here and Now Tour (Rick Astley, Bananarama, ABC, Paul Young, Curiosity Killed the Cat, Johnny Hates Jazz, Cutting Crew) - Arena - May 9th (6)
53. Heavy Trash, Powersolo - Bodega Social Club - September 30th (6)
54. Delays - Bodega Social Club - March 4th (5)
55. The Futureheads - Rescue Rooms - June 3rd (5)
56. The Orb - Rescue Rooms - May 15th (4)
57. Will Young - Royal Concert Hall - November 28th (4)
58. Seth Lakeman - Rescue Rooms - April 23rd (3)
59. Boy George - Royal Concert Hall - February 8th (3)
60. MGMT - Bodega Social Club - February 28th (2)
61. Seasick Steve - Rock City - October 9th (2)
62. Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong - Rescue Rooms - May 19th (1)
63. Dolly Parton - Arena - July 1st (1)

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Joan As Police Woman – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday December 10.

Having supported Rufus Wainwright in 2005 and the Guillemots in 2006, Joan Wasser made her Nottingham debut as a headline act last night. In contrast to the self-effacing modesty of her previous shows, she radiated a new-found authority, looking glamorous and sleek with her newly auburn hair and sparkly gold frock.

Technical problems with Joan’s keyboard disrupted the flow of the first few numbers, loosening her focus and disrupting her concentration. Bolstered by the amiable patience of her audience, she soon warmed up. Switching to guitar for the bulk of the more muscular, rock-tinged second half, her performance stepped up a notch, her playing markedly more expressive.

A jumbo-sized packet of Doritos were handed into the crowd, and passed around like communion wafers. From this point on, Joan was on safe ground. The goth-like rumblings of Christobel worked better live than on record, and a sublime Magpies benefited from fine falsetto harmonies, courtesy of her bassist and drummer.

Dedicated with fervent glee to “our new president”, To America segued into a thunderous version of Furious, which climaxed with a no-holds-barred, free-form freak-out. As Joan repeatedly slammed her fists into her keyboard, those earlier technical glitches became much easier to understand.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Hold Steady – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday December 9.

Patience was rewarded last night, as The Hold Steady compensated for October’s cancelled show with a storming 90 minute set. Just three nights into the rescheduled UK tour, singer Craig Finn could already spot familiar faces in the crowd. These people knew every word of the band’s dense, multi-layered mini-dramas, and they took eager delight in roaring an equally delighted Finn’s lyrics back at him.

Drawing on the experiences of his late teens and early twenties, Finn’s songs capture a world of reckless youthful excess, creating a complex narrative which runs through all four albums. There’s a nostalgic, almost mythological quality which invites comparison with Springsteen – but where Bruce can get bogged down in earnest worthiness, Craig never allows the darker undertows of his lyrics to stand in the way of having the best time possible. He’s the bespectacled college boy who hung out with dangerous “townies”, the geek made good, the thirtysomething who was given a second shot at success, and who has seized that opportunity with both hands.

Slamming from song to song with scarcely a pause, and with a set list that changes nightly, the band peaked with an exultant Sequestered In Memphis and an anthemic Chips Ahoy.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

The Steel City Tour (Human League, ABC, Heaven 17) - Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday December 3.

A tidal wave of Eighties nostalgia swept through the Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday night, as three of Sheffield’s most celebrated pop acts came together for the Steel City Tour. In happy contrast to the cost-conscious Here And Now packages, stylish stage sets had been constructed for all three acts, properly reflecting their art school roots.

Glenn Gregory’s broad, beaming smile never left him for a second, as Heaven 17 whipped through a well chosen selection of chart hits (Come Live With Me), cult hits (Fascist Groove Thang) and even a brand new song. Many of the tracks were subtly beefed up with contemporary dance rhythms, including an epic, show-stopping Temptation.

Bravely, ABC opted to include three songs from Traffic, their most recent album. These blended in well with their Eighties back catalogue, which included six selections from the classic Lexicon Of Love. Performing in front of a red velvet backdrop, a sharp-suited Martin Fry looked happy and relaxed, and sounded in as fine a voice as ever.

The Human League might be a nostalgia act these days, but their futurist tendencies still shine through. Their stage set was all clean white surfaces, retro-modern gadgetry (were those the remains of a vintage IBM mainframe?) and dazzling computer-animated visuals.

Like Glenn and Martin before him, Phil Oakey’s sturdy baritone placed him firmly in the “bellowing foghorn” school of Eighties pop performers. As ever, his commanding vocal presence was balanced by the endearingly unschooled voices of Susan and Joanne, whose occasional off-key wobbles merely added to their charm. Seemingly impervious to the normal aging process, 45-year old Susan vamped it up something rotten, flirting with the front rows and revelling in our attention.

The League’s hour-long set climaxed with the evergreen Don’t You Want Me, a properly arty Being Boiled, and a truly glorious Together In Electric Dreams.

Set list.

Heaven 17:
(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang
Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry
Geisha Boys And Temple Girls
I’m Gonna Make You Fall In Love With Me
Come Live With Me
Let Me Go
Penthouse & Pavement

The Very First Time
Poison Arrow
Show Me
How To Be A Millionaire
Date Stamp
Love Is Strong
All Of My Heart
Tears Are Not Enough
When Smokey Sings
The Look Of Love

Human League:
Mirror Man
Open Your Heart
Love Action (I Believe In Love)
Empire State Human
The Lebanon
The Sound Of The Crowd
(Keep Feeling) Fascination
Tell Me When
Don’t You Want Me
Being Boiled
Together In Electric Dreams

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Late Of The Pier / Fan Death – Chameleon Arts Café, Sunday November 30.

Fan Death are Dandi and Marta, an electro-disco synth-pop duo from Canada. They’re tiny and giggly and eager, full of fresh-faced fun, a bit arty, and quite brilliant. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll be hearing a lot of them in 2009.

Late Of The Pier are the biggest and best act to appear from this part of the world in living memory. Last night saw them return to Nottingham for a barely advertised show in a tiny café above a card shop on Angel Row. It was the launch night for Sausage Party, a new venture from the Liars Club crew. Half the crowd seemed to know the band personally, making for an uncommonly friendly vibe that felt more like a private party than a standard rock gig.

With no raised stage area, visibility was tight. The front rows were asked to sit on the floor – which they did, for all of five minutes. As the spiky, punchy set progressed, a kind of collective frenzy engulfed the room. The singer surfed the crowd, before scaling a wobbly speaker stack. The moshers shook the floor so hard that fears were raised for the ceiling below. “Please don’t dance”, the singer pleaded. “Or else YOU’LL DIE.” The sense of danger merely heightened the mood.

An unforgettable night, from one of the most exciting young bands in the country. We should be proud.

See also: Fan Death on MySpace; Fan Death in The Guardian; Fan Death on KARINSKI.NET.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Will Young, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Friday November 28.

Having plied his trade on the arena circuit for the past few years, Will Young has returned to theatres and concert halls for his current tour. For his fans, it’s a chance to see him in a relatively more intimate setting. For Will, it’s an opportunity to showcase his skills as a singer, rather than coast on his status as a pop star.

If last night’s show was any fair measure, then there’s still some work to be done. An unsympathetic sound mix tended to bury his voice in the arrangements on the more uptempo numbers, most of which were stacked up in the first half of the show. This did his delicate, reedy voice no favours, leaving him sounding somewhat lacking in presence and authority.

The breakthrough came with the ballad You Don’t Know, performed to the accompaniment of a single guitar. At this point, Will seemed to find his focus, giving a sincere performance which carried emotional depth and weight. This stripped down mood was carried through to Let It Go: the title track from Will’s fourth album, and one of the strongest songs on there. Following the poor chart performance of current single Grace, it has the potential to restore his hit-making status.

From this point onwards, Will was on safe ground. Bounding around the stage in a loose, scooped neck T-shirt and a pair of impossibly tight trousers that looked more like leggings, he looked dressed for a dance class rather than a concert performance – but this casual attire suited his relaxed, informal manner. The banter flowed, as cheeky calls from the audience were answered with witty ripostes and off-the-cuff anecdotes. This wasn’t an evening for considered artistry and solemn song craft, but a light-hearted coming together of a much-loved personality and his adoring fanbase.

The evening’s most bizarre moment came with the encore, which saw Will in fluorescent gloves, making “jazz hands” and throwing all manner of unlikely shapes, for a tango-flavoured Grace Jones cover (I’ve Seen That Face Before). Sanity was restored for the inevitable closer Leave Right Now: the only one of his four chart-topping singles to be performed (All Time Love being the other major omission), and still his most enduring classic.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Show Of Hands with Miranda Sykes – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday November 27.

Photo taken in Trowbrisge, July 2006, by perlmonger.

Veterans of the sit-down folk club circuit they may be, but last night’s mesmerising show at the Rescue Rooms demonstrated that Show Of Hands’ current “Standing Room Only” tour was a gamble that has paid off. As vocalist Steve Knightley remarked, stand-up venues give the crowd a chance to bellow along to their hearts’ content, without risking the glares of their neighbours.

For a band that remains firmly off the radar of anyone unfamiliar with the English folk scene – despite a seventeen year career and three sold-out appearances at the Royal Albert Hall – it was remarkable to observe the fierce loyalty of their audience, who greeted many songs like old friends. The night’s biggest crowd pleaser was Cousin Jack, a stirring tale of migrant mine workers, while the trenchant Country Life (“The red brick cottage where I was born is the empty shell of a holiday home”) proved that the tradition of the protest song has not yet been extinguished.

As the set progressed, the music took a darker, more brooding turn, Knightley and his partner Phil Beer switching to fiddles for a stunning version of Innocents’ Song. The set closed with the anthemic Roots, whose outspoken polemic roused the crowd into one final massed bellow.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Laura Marling, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday November 4.

(In which the Triple Dose of Mellow reaches its conclusion...)

Photo taken in Aberdeen on October 30th 2008 by Nick Bramhall.

Despite all the attention that has come her way this year, Laura Marling remains resolutely unfazed by the trappings of stardom. When shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, she fretted that “winning it would have been disastrous for my career”. She regards the rituals of the encore as phoney and ridiculous, opting instead to add her “encore” to the end of her main set. And it’s only recently that she has even consented to wear make-up on stage.

This unadorned, “what you see is what you get” approach suits Marling’s music well, allowing her elegant, articulate and remarkably mature songcraft to shine through. Last night’s show featured several new compositions, easily the equals of her recorded work, including a Christmas song that avoided using the word as that would be “too corny”.

Marling sang quietly and delicately, with immense concentration and a fixed, faraway, unreadable gaze. Her set alternated between solo acoustic performances and full band arrangements, her backing sympathetically provided by a fine four-piece troupe. Violin and stand-up bass were to the forefront throughout, augmented variously by keyboards, drums, banjo, mandolin, squeeze box and clarinet.

The capacity audience couldn’t have been more attentive and respectful. At the age of eighteen, Laura Marling is exactly where she wants to be.

See also: SwissToni's report, and Lady Penelope's illustrated review of Laura Marling's show at the London Scala.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Martha Wainwright, Nottingham Rock City, Monday November 3.

(aka Part Two of this week's "Triple Dose of Mellow"...)

It takes a special kind of boldness to announce to your audience, after the third number, that you’re not wearing any underwear. Despite wrapping her admission in layers of wry self-deprecation, Martha Wainwright’s words came back to bite her later on, as a boorish heckler sought to labour the point. “I really wish I hadn’t said that”, she sighed.

This kind of reckless candour lies at the heart of much of Martha’s material: confessional, twisted, deeply personal songs that can teeter on the brink of over-sharing. On stage at a draughty, under-populated Rock City, her interpretations deftly straddled two competing standpoints: the accuser (“You cheated me, and I can’t believe it!”) and the victim (“My heart was made for bleeding all over you”).

Such dense lyrical complexity demanded much from us, and those with the greatest familiarity with Wainwright’s work derived the greatest rewards. Happily, most of her audience fell into this category, and an atmosphere of fond concentration prevailed.

Saving her most notorious song for the encore, Martha performed BMFA – written as an angry rant at her father – with an affectionate half-smile that suggested that the hatchet had long since been buried.

“Underwear is available in the foyer”, she quipped, truthfully. On the way out, the crush at the merchandise stall was three-deep.

See also: SwissToni's longer review, in which he justifiably rips into the drippy, self-satisfied and quite ghastly support act.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Fleet Foxes, Nottingham Trent University, Sunday November 2.

Photo taken at Bristol University on October 30th 2008 by prusakolep.

It’s not often that a band serves as its own support act – so it came as some surprise when the four other members of Fleet Foxes shuffled onto the stage, halfway through drummer J Tillman’s solo set, to provide understated backing for a couple of numbers. Their sheer diffidence left you wondering whether they would have the necessary stage presence to carry their own set.

As it turned out, we had no cause for concern. Nudged along by a precision-targeted marketing campaign and a blitz of positive press notices, the Seattle quintet’s self-titled debut album has been one of this year’s slow-burning successes, drawing a capacity crowd to Trent University. The venue’s reliably superb acoustics suited the music perfectly, enabling the band to deliver an exquisite performance to a spellbound audience.

On record, the lush pastoralism doesn’t always convince, erring at times towards the cloying and the twee. On stage, the same songs gained muscularity, range and depth. For all the soaring melodic sweetness of their four-part choral harmonies, Fleet Foxes demonstrated an unexpected grasp of rock dynamics, underpinning their ever-present Brian Wilson influences with echoes of Neil Young’s windblown ruggedness.

Equally unexpected was the band’s dry, sardonic, and somewhat rambling comic banter – although, as was cheerfully admitted, this could just have been due to some particularly heavy doses of cold medication. How else to explain their eulogies to John “The Mav” McCain?

“We want four more years of the same”, they drawled, to hoots of amused disbelief.

“Hey, if it ain’t broke...!”

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Friday, October 31, 2008

The Temptations – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday October 29.

Speaking at last Friday’s funeral for Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, the Reverend Jesse Jackson mistakenly listed Otis Williams, sole surviving founder member of The Temptations, as another deceased Motown legend. This must have come as surprising news to the ebullient Williams, still leading the group after 47 years in the business.

His four newer colleagues – Joe, Ron, Terry and Bruce – joined the group well after their classic run of Sixties and Seventies hits. Although no match for former lead singers such as Edwards, Kendricks and Ruffin, the burly Bruce and the more diminutive Ron acquitted themselves ably enough, reminding us that the songs and the spirit of The Temptations have always been greater than any individual member. As the group’s chequered history would testify, over-inflated egos have never survived in its ranks for very long.

As ever, band leader Otis remained happy in his traditional role as “tenor in the middle”, never grabbing the solo limelight for more than an occasional line. However, the group’s trademark vocal balance was undermined by a surprisingly under-par PA system, whose murkiness all but smothered bass singer Joe Herndon’s vital contributions. The nine-piece horn section fared little better, sounding oddly muted and distant.

None of this deterred the loyal crowd of seasoned Motown fans, who spent most of the show’s second half on their feet, reserving their warmest cheers for Sixties classics such as Since I Lost My Baby and the immortal My Girl. Their enthusiasm, coupled with the group’s slick choreography and impeccable back catalogue, saved the night.

Set list:
Overture (Also Sprach Zarathustra)
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)
The Way You Do the Things You Do
Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
Ball Of Confusion
I Wish It Would Rain
Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)
Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone
I Can’t Get Next To You
You Are So Necessary In My Life
Get Ready
Treat Her Like A Lady
Since I Lost My Baby
The Girl’s Alright With Me
Cloud Nine
Psychedelic Shack
My Girl
(I Know) I'm Losing You

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Holy Fuck – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Wednesday October 15.

Holy Fuck, August 2008

They may have looked like mild-mannered indie kids – but when it came to unleashing an all-out barrage of distinctly unholy noise, this experimental four-piece from Toronto held nothing back.

Teaming a traditional rhythm section with a sprawling array of electronic devices, the band welded rock dynamics to dance-derived textures and effects. No pre-programmed beats were deployed, and there were no laptops on hand to provide easy shortcuts. Pieces of kit were rapidly unplugged and re-wired on the fly, according to need.

The psychedelic squiggles and swirls sometimes evoked the progressive space-rock of the early Seventies. At other times, the brutal rhythmic energy strayed closer to late Nineties hard trance – but equally, we were never bludgeoned by over-repetition. Tempos were constantly switched, keeping us alert and focussed.

The similarly mild-mannered crowd nodded and twitched their appreciation, but never truly cut loose. Considering the visceral power of the performance, their restraint was perplexing.

(Photo taken at Pukkelpop, Limburg on August 15th 2008 by Maarten_Timmermans)

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CSS – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday October 13.

Just over two years ago, Brazilian dance-punk sextet CSS – then known as Cansei de Ser Sexy (“tired of being sexy”) – made their British live debut at Stealth. For their fourth Nottingham appearance, a packed Rescue Rooms was treated to an early, short (it was all over by 9:25) and pleasingly chaotic set.

Opening with selections from their second album Donkey – a more streamlined but less memorable collection than their eccentric, fun-packed debut – it took the band a while to connect with the room. Notably less dance-orientated, the first few numbers felt buried beneath a muddy, guitar-heavy squall which betrayed a lack of technical finesse.

As the set progressed, both band and crowd loosened up, the introduction of keyboards adding welcome funkiness and flair. Teaming her sea-green bodysuit with a shaggy cape of multi-coloured rope, her eyebrows dyed dayglo orange, lead singer Lovefoxx goofed merrily around the stage, lost in her own parallel universe.

The show ended on a rowdy, exhilarating high. A disco mirror ball was procured; helium balloons were inhaled; shiny armfuls of confetti were strewn. A gloriously messy (if barely recognisable) “Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above” gave way to an exultant “Alala”, leaving us with the frustrating sense that CSS had only just warmed up.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Seasick Steve – Nottingham Rock City, Thursday October 9.

Seasick Steve, Cois Fharraige, Ireland, September 2008

The mythology surrounding Seasick Steve is a powerful one. Having drifted around the fringes of the music industry since the Sixties, an appearance on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny dramatically raised his profile. Now in his seventh decade, his third album in the Top Ten, this former train-hopping hobo has become one of the year’s more unlikely stars.

Last night at Rock City, a capacity crowd treated the grizzly, bearded bluesman to a hero’s welcome. Like thousands before them, they seemed keen to buy into Steve’s heart-warming rags-to-riches story.

The set began promisingly enough. Mixing traditional blues stylings with a dash of rock-based, Jack White-style showmanship, Steve played well – if not spectacularly – and quickly developed an easy, jokey rapport with the crowd. Good natured heckles were met with a brandished baseball bat. Showy slugs were taken from a bottle of Jack Daniels. A female admirer was serenaded on stage. A clock was theatrically smashed.

Nevertheless, attention spans soon started to drift. We might have warmed to the man and the myth, but how many were truly in love with the music? The songs became interchangeable, the genre’s limitations ever more exposed. Worst of all, most of us could barely see Steve’s seated figure – an awkward situation which eventually drew an apology.

As the crowd chatter escalated to uncomfortable levels (*), Steve worked ever harder to save the show. Quieter numbers were dropped. The rock-star flourishes grew flashier. It still wasn’t enough. Two years from now, will we still be indulging him like this?

(*) I'm being way too polite here. The crowd were ghastly. The rudest, most attention-deficited audience I've had to endure since Rodrigo Y Gabriela played the same venue.

Photo of Seasick Steve taken at Cois Fharraige (Ireland) on September 6 2008 by timsnell and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Heavy Trash / PowerSolo – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Tuesday September 30.

Heavy Trash, New York City, August 2008

Having started as a side project, Jon Spencer’s Heavy Trash seems to have overtaken his Blues Explosion as the main focus of attention. In the four years since the last Blues Explosion release, Spencer and his musical partner Matt Verta-Ray have put out two albums as a duo. Last night at the Bodega, they were joined on stage by the three members of their Danish support band, PowerSolo.

Effectively playing a double set, PowerSolo were the heroes of the night. As the support act, they worked hard to win us over. During the final number, the band’s gangly, goofy front man Kim Kix leapt off the stage, and began to prowl the front ranks of the crowd. Dangling the neck of his guitar well below waist height, he pressed it into service as a kind of musical Geiger counter: provocatively probing his victims, and registering his reactions to hilarious effect.

Both acts specialised in roughed-up versions of Fifties rockabilly, as filtered through Sixties garage rock, Seventies punk rock, Eighties psychobilly and Nineties alt-rock. Shut your eyes, and you could hear echoes of everyone from the forefathers of rock and roll – Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent – through to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the Count Five, The Stooges, Doctor Feelgood, The Ramones, The Stray Cats, The Cramps and points beyond.

In place of PowerSolo’s more playful approach, Heavy Trash offered a more studied pastiche. His vocals drenched in reverb to the point of incomprehensibility, Spencer in particular seemed locked into character: expertly channelling the spirits of Presley and Vincent, but leaving you wondering how much he had retained of himself, beyond his obvious love of the genre.

Perhaps this was the only sticking point in an otherwise superbly delivered show. For all their raw physicality, and for all their fine musicianship, Heavy Trash never quite connected on an emotional level. They might have stirred our hips, but did they touch our souls?

Photo of Heavy Trash taken in New York City on August 19 2008 by nevbrown and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

Addendum: A somewhat stern assessment, but then I had such a split reaction to the gig. My head and my heart were pretty much unmoved - but, ahem, the hips don't lie.

As a dance band, they were great - and as such I increasingly found myself convulsed in all manner of peculiar Pavlovian twitchings. But in the final analysis, it was still just a touch too retro-reverential for me.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

The Ting Tings – Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday September 24.

Down at the Bodega, 53 minute sets (including encore) are nothing to complain about. Over at the Rescue Rooms, they’re just about acceptable. But at a sold-out Rock City, where over two thousand punters had shelled out £15 per ticket, you couldn’t help feeling a little short-changed.

Then again, when you’ve only got a 35 minute debut album to your name, there’s little to be gained in pointless padding. Ting Tings songs are mostly short and sharp, and on the whole they’re best kept that way. And with pre-recorded backing tracks inevitably playing a large part in the duo’s instrumentation, there wasn’t exactly much scope for spontaneous jamming.

However – and this is very much to the band’s credit – the performance never felt overly constrained by the technology. Stepping confidently into the Deborah Harry/Kim Wilde tradition of Great Pop Blondes, singer and guitarist Katie White maintained a cool, commanding, effortlessly sexy presence: strutting her stuff, but preserving her mystique. Jules De Martino provided solid, unflashy accompaniment on the drum kit, switching to keyboards whenever it was required.

Almost inevitably, the three hit singles – a chugging Great DJ, a funky Shut Up And Let Me Go and a frenzied, climactic That’s Not My Name – proved to be the biggest highlights. Although most of the album tracks were well received, chatter from the only-here-for-the-hits brigade did threaten to drown out the more subdued Traffic Lights.

A fun night out – but also rather a short one.

(Photographs © Nottingham Evening Post 2008, and reproduced with permission.)

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spiers & Boden – The Maze, Nottingham, Monday September 15.

Spiers & Boden, Newcastle, May 2006

The professional bit:

For anyone impatient to hear more from all-star folk band Bellowhead, the past few days have been a rare treat. Following Thursday’s Playhouse appearance by Benji Kirkpatrick and Paul Sartin as part of Faustus, last night saw the Maze play host to Bellowhead’s key founder members: singer and violinist Jon Boden, backed by John Spiers on melodeon and concertina.

Where Faustus focus on finely balanced three-way counterpoints (*), Spiers and Boden take a more straight-up traditional approach, with Spiers providing a solid, unflashy backdrop to his partner’s resonant vocals and amazing fiddle playing.

Clocking in at over two and a half hours, the duo’s marathon set showcased many numbers from their fifth album Vagabond. As befits its title, these were songs of rebels, wastrels, pirates, beggars… and even a certain Mr. Hood, whose conception and birth in the “good green-wood” provided the subject matter for a fine epic ballad.

Amongst the many splendid jigs, the irresistible Sloe Gin – as recently popularised by Bellowhead and The Imagined Village – made a welcome appearance.

The evening finished with a surprise non-traditional choice from the Tom Waits songbook: a lilting, yearning Innocent When You Dream, which had the crowd softly singing along, almost to themselves.

Photo of Spiers & Boden taken in Newcastle on May 22 2006 by pdcawley and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

The amateur bit:

(*) The eagle-eyed reader will have noticed that this is the third consecutive gig review in which I have used the word "counterpoint". Are counterpoints the new curveballs? Perhaps they are.

(In truth, I filched the observation from K, who described Faustus as "more contrapuntal" and Spiers/Boden as "more chordal". I love it when he talks dirty.)

Boden, it has to be said, looked physically knackered - pasty-faced and red-eyed, in the manner of a new dad who hadn't slept for a few weeks - which made the two and a half hour set all the more remarkable. To further emphasise the already significant height difference between his lanky frame and Spiers' altogether squatter construction, Boden performed on top of a wooden box, which K reckoned was miked up, in order to add resonance to his all-important foot-stamping.

(Faustus were all about the feet, as well. I may be new to the folk scene, but I'm learning fast.)

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The Dodos / Euros Childs – Nottingham Bodega, Sunday September 14.

The Dodos, Groningen, August 2008

The professional bit:

Two years on from the breakup of Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, former leader Euros Childs continues to plough his gently idiosyncratic furrow. Seemingly impervious to the normal aging process, his demeanour remains cheerfully relaxed, and his solo material continues to blend whimsical pastoralism with understated tunefulness.

The Dodos have been steadily gathering critical acclaim since the release of their remarkable second album Visiter. Their music is both brutally primitive and impossibly complex, with drummer Logan Kroeber the undisputed star of the show.

In place of a standard kit, Kroeber pounded out his dizzyingly syncopated rhythms on a semi-circular set of four drums, balancing his breakneck tempo with an extraordinary lightness of touch, and displaying a technical accomplishment which frankly beggared belief. (*)

Over to the left, a seated, floppy-fringed Meric Long added plaintive indie-boy vocals, sometimes using two microphones to build looping effects. His equally unique guitar style combined bottleneck blues and oblique thrash, providing a mesmerising counterpoint to Kroeber’s ceaseless energy.

Meanwhile, Joe Heaner drifted on and off the stage, alternating between an industrial-sized glockenspiel, an ancient miniature organ, a giant cymbal and a vast, ugly-looking metal bucket.

Veering between rapturous applause and stunned silence, the uncommonly attentive audience lapped up every note. (**)

Photo of The Dodos taken in Groningen (Netherlands) on August 29 2008 by Niels ten Have and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

The amateur bit:

(*) In actual fact, his drumming technique repeatedly brought Adam and the Ants to mind, circa Kings of the Wild Frontier, and particularly the intro to Antmusic. Lots of rimshots, and virtually no footwork, save for a tambourine attached to his left foot. Oh, and can we say CUTE? All lean and moustachioed, like a baby-faced Brandon Flowers.

(**) As my friends found out after the show (getting their posters signed while I chatted to Euros about his connection with Kevin Ayers), the band initially mistook our reverential silence for icy indifference. "We thought you weren't into it", they explained. "Then we realised: actually, you were just really into it."

Luckily for us, this lead to them adding an unscripted second encore (despite the drummer making reluctant "tired" signs at the singer, as well he might) - which turned out to be the most spectacular performance of the whole show. How the hell these things even get composed in the first place, I simply have no idea.

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Faustus – Nottingham Playhouse Studio, Thursday September 11.

Faustus, Union Chapel London, May 2008

The professional bit:

Boasting a collective pedigree that stretches from Norma Waterson to Seth Lakeman, and from Paul Weller to Bellowhead, Faustus could almost be described as a folk supergroup. Kicking off an exceptionally promising new folk season at the Playhouse, they worked hard to warm up the initially subdued audience, scattered over three rows in the stark studio space above Cast.

The three band members – Paul Sartin on violin and occasional oboe, Saul Rose on an array of melodeons, and Benji Kirkpatrick on guitar and bouzouki – radiated a relaxed, good-natured rapport, interspersing their music with droll asides and a dry banter which sometimes bordered on the surreal.

This easy demeanour masked a remarkable level of dexterity and craftsmanship. On dizzying jig medleys such as Next Stop Grimsby / The Three Rascals / Aunt Crisps, the players perched their intoxicatingly cheery melodic refrains on top of complex rhythms and constantly shifting counterpoints.

While the jigs were largely self-penned, the songs were all traditional: excavated from a variety of archives and songbooks, and given fresh, sturdy new arrangements. A broadly nautical theme ran through many of them. The Green Willow Tree told the story of a heroic but doomed cabin boy, betrayed by his captain and dispatched to a watery grave (*), while The Old Miser recounted the fate of an amorous sailor, sold for transportation by his sweetheart’s jealous father. On The New Deserter, a ballad made popular by Fairport Convention, the familiar lyric was given a haunting and effective new melody.

Photo of Faustus taken at the Union Chapel in London, May 14 2008 by BohemianCoast and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

The amateur bit:

(*) This was of particular interest, since I ONCE WAS THAT CABIN BOY! 'Twas in the year 1974, and I had been assigned an understudy role to the lead chorister in our school's end-of-term production: The Golden Vanity, a childrens' opera by Benjamin Britten, which is based upon the same story as The Green Willow Tree. (With certain variations as to the exact manner of the plucky cabin boy's watery demise.)

Three or four days before show time, said chorister went down with a nasty case of the measles, and I was duly bumped up to Heroic Male Lead - a role I discharged with great gusto (drama being one of my Big Things at the age of 12, and did I ever tell you about the time I played Mole to Jeremy Clarkson's Toad?), albeit a semi-tone flat throughout (I winced my way through a subsequent classroom playback on the music master's reel-to-reel).

All matters of pitch control aside, my greatest challenge was miming a convincing dive from the deck of my ship (the titular Golden Vanity) into the tempestuous ocean below (as represented by the floor of the school gym), and then battling my way through the waves until I reached the dastardly pirate ship (on the other side of the gym, manned by a bunch of classmates in Marks and Sparks pyjamas with their mothers' scarves tied around their heads). As a confirmed non-swimmer, whose irreducible combination of stubborness and terror had broken the will of a long succcession of swimming teachers down at Doncaster Baths, I lacked all semblance of convincing mime technique. Many hours of coaching ensued, after which I was just about able to muster a vaguely convincing upper body breast stroke.

Following the high drama of my drowning ("And then, and only-then, did the crew-throw-out-a-ROPE!"), the opera climaxed with my re-appearance as a ghostly presence (i.e. standing behind a darkened screen with a gauze-covered, head-shaped hole cut in it, a hand-held torch pointing up at my ghostly chin), forever destined to haunt the ocean waves with my netherworldly wailing:


It was very moving. If half a tone flat.

I nearly told all this to Benji Kirkpatrick during the post-gig Meet And Greet/Retail Opportunity session - but thought better of it, confining myself to a simple "Ooh, I've got all these CDs already, thank you very much, that was great, bye bye!"

Well, one doesn't like to monopolise.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir / Congregation – Nottingham Bodega Social, Wednesday August 13.

There’s something not quite of this time or place about Congregation. While guitarist Benjamin picked out ethereal, Gothic twists on traditional blues figures – occasionally activating a kick drum via a foot pedal for added emphasis – vocalist Victoria maintained a mournful, otherworldly presence, as if beamed straight from a dusty 1920s photo album. The indistinctness of Victoria’s strange, slurred diction – like a Bessie Smith recording that had melted in the August heat – merely added to the mystery.

Victoria and Benjamin declared themselves thrilled to be supporting the Agnostics, and with good reason. Both acts take the blues as their broad base, shaping it into intriguing new forms. In the case of the headliners, a quartet from Calgary that have transplanted so-called “mountain music” from the Appalachians to the Rockies, their music has been informed by Beefheart’s scratchy roughness, the bruised romanticism of Tom Waits, and the energy of good old-fashioned garage rock.

Although frustratingly subdued to start with, the set gradually gained momentum, carrying the increasingly enthusiastic crowd with it. The playing was delightfully loose and instinctive, taking the sparseness of banjo, acoustic guitar and stand-up bass and building something remarkably rich and full upon it.

A dead ringer for Fidel Castro in his prime, bearded, behatted, bespectacled vocalist Judd Palmer saved his coup de grace for the climax, ecstatically riffing on his mouth organ at dizzying speed, as drummer Peter Balkwill pulled out all the stops. It was a suitably thrilling end to a fine display of ensemble playing, from a thoroughly likeable bunch of guys.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Drive-By Truckers – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday August 7.

If last night’s show was any fair measure, then the audience for Drive-By Truckers – a six-piece alternative country-rock band from Athens, Georgia – divides neatly into two.

For some, the quasi-literary narrative style of the lyrics was the main attraction. Most Truckers songs, whether composed by the shaggy, imposing Patterson Hood, his leaner co-vocalist Mike Cooley, smiling bassist Shonna Tucker or former member Jason Isbell, take the form of carefully crafted mini-dramas, which demand close attention.

Meanwhile, a smaller but more vocal faction was happy to respond on a gut level to the band’s sturdy Southern boogie, and to the exultant drive of their so-called “three axe attack”.

For the first half hour or so, neither tribe were best served by the slightly samey mid-paced chug on offer. Muffled by the mix, the vocals remained impenetrable to all but the most word perfect of diehards – and despite the brilliance of their execution, there was something interchangeable about all those guitar jams.

Just as apathy threatened to set in, the Truckers shifted gear. The harrowing You And Your Crystal Meth dipped the mood to powerful effect, while the suppressed fury of The Righteous Path evoked Neil Young at his most blistering.

The absolute highlight was saved for the encore. Taken from 2001’s much loved breakthrough album Southern Rock Opera (essentially an extended homage to Lynyrd Skynyrd), the compelling Let There Be Rock was played from the heart, both the band and the crowd finally shedding their last vestiges of studious detachment.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

White Denim, Nottingham Bodega, Monday July 7.

Nothing on White Denim’s debut album Workout Holiday could prepare you for the all-out aural onslaught of their stage performance. Quite frankly, you might as well be listening to two different bands. Where the album is measured, focussed, its production erring towards the dry and clinical, the live show is a hard, fast, deliriously messy, no-holds-barred experience. Perhaps there were hints of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in there somewhere, along with a whiff of Kings Of Leon’s raw Southern garage rock.

As we were repeatedly and cheerily reminded, the trio hail from Austin, Texas. At the city’s influential SXSW festival earlier this year, they received the award of Best New Band. The fabled “SXSW buzz” can sometimes be a poisoned chalice, but the band’s exuberant, spontaneous, instinctive energy cut through all the hype in an instant.

Star of the show was drummer Joshua Block, whose intensely complex playing style mesmerised the crowd. It didn’t matter that almost none of the songs sounded familiar; album opener Let’s Talk About It was mangled almost out of recognition. White Denim are all about capturing the moment, and attempting to reproduce it on record seems almost beside the point.

See also: SwissToni's more detailed review of the same show.
"it's not for the cock": another review of the same show (including the support bands which ST and I missed, as we were too busy yakking downstairs).

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Duran Duran, Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday July 6.

Duran Duran, Sydney, April 2008

Acoustically speaking, the Trent FM Arena isn't exactly the easiest of venues. For visiting sound crews, its unforgiving, hangar-like dimensions must present a significant challenge -- but, as last night's show proved, the challenge is not an impossible one. While lesser acts have floundered, their instruments buried in murky sludge, Duran Duran's sound quality was well nigh impeccable, and a tribute to the professionalism of their team.

Bravely, the band opted to open their set with the first three numbers from their most recent album, Red Carpet Massacre. Although the album has under-performed sales-wise, the songs were enthusiastically received, signalling a return to the band's funkier, clubbier roots, and marking a noticeable shift from their more rock-based influences. Perhaps it is no coincidence that guitarist Andy Taylor -- always Duran's biggest rocker -- left the band during the album's early sessions in 2006. His place on stage was filled by an unassuming chap called Dom, who kept his profile low and his solos to a minimum.

As if to emphasise the shift, bassist John Taylor -- still pretty-boy handsome, despite an increasing sartorial resemblance to Keith Richards -- doubled up on additional keyboards, adding a walloping bass-heavy throb to set opener The Valley. Giving him a run for his money in the forty-something heart-throb stakes, Roger Taylor cut a lean, agile figure on the drums, his superb playing placing him at the heart of Duran's revitalised sound. Representing the arty faction, keyboardist Nick Rhodes maintained his usual inscrutable, impassive stance.

And then there was Simon: still playing the rock star, striking every pose in the book, lapping up the limelight and occasionally making a bit of a twit of himself -- but never taking himself too seriously, and clearly still loving every minute. According to Simon, Duran's debut single Planet Earth "is about the fact that we're not alone". Had he been communing with latter-day UFO watcher Robbie Williams, one wondered...

For the crowd, the galvanising moment came early on, as the new songs gave way to a storming version of Hungry Like The Wolf. Suddenly, the entire Arena was on their feet, giving it up and living it large. From that point on, Duran could do no wrong. Even comparatively weaker hits such as A View To A Kill and the more recent (Reach Up For The) Sunrise sounded fantastic, the latter prompting massed arm waving from the front to the back of the hall.

Although the band could easily have played it safe, risks continued to be taken. An hour into the set, in a neat inversion of the increasingly popular "acoustic interlude", a fifteen minute all-electronic set was performed, with the four core members lined up in front of mini-synthesisers, paying homage to electro pioneers Kraftwerk.

Or at least, that was the theory. As it turned out, Simon couldn't rein in those rock star impulses for long. Barely touching his kit, he soon broke rank from the line-up, engaging instead on a sequence of moves which combined 1980s b-boy robotics with some decidedly camp pelvic thrusting. The overall effect was as endearing as it was preposterous.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was when an extended Girls On Film morphed into a cover of The Temptations' Papa Was A Rolling Stone. Considering Duran's somewhat shaky reputation for cover versions (who could forget their bizarre take on Public Enemy's 911 Is A Joke, for instance?), this was another major gamble -- but again, it was a gamble that paid off. "WHO'S YOUR DADDY?!" yelled Simon, over and over again, slapping his breast for emphasis. You had to love him for it. No, really, you did.

Almost two hours in, the set climaxed with an exemplary, spot-on Wild Boys, which played to all the band's collective strengths. The only real error of judgement came during the encore of Rio, which was besmirched by not one, but two, Eighties Jazz Sax solos. (Paying homage to Kraftwerk is one thing, but paying homage to Spandau Ballet's Steve Norman is quite another.) It was the only quibble in an otherwise mighty, masterful and gloriously entertaining night.

Duran Duran, New York, May 2008

Set list:

The Valley, Red Carpet Massacre, Nite Runner, Hungry Like The Wolf, Planet Earth, Falling Down, Come Undone, Skin Divers, The Reflex, Save A Prayer, A View To A Kill.

Electro set: Last Chance On The Stairway/All She Wants Is/Warm Leatherette, I Don't Want Your Love, Skin Trade, Tempted.

Notorious, Girls On Film/Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Ordinary World, (Reach Up For The) Sunrise, The Wild Boys.

Encore: Rio.

(Photos of Duran taken by pj_in_oz and AmandaB3)

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Black Kids, Team Waterpolo – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday July 2.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a strong, thumping bass line – so long as it is used as a force for good. Faced with support act Team Waterpolo’s brutal subsonic assault, which left you fearing for the stability of your internal organs, you had to question the band’s motives. Was this some sort of revenge for the controversial high-pitched “Mosquito” alarm, this time audible only to the over-25s? It was certainly the only point of interest in their otherwise routine assemblage of spiky, bratty punk-pop postures.

As for Black Kids – a likeably shambling indie-dance five-piece from Florida, with a fresh attitude and a healthy sense of fun – comparisons could be made with CSS’s position in 2006. Both acts have benefited from a blog-generated buzz in the US, catapulting them into the spotlight rather ahead of time. Happily, Black Kids also have enough style, suss, wit and charm to compensate for their technical limitations. Although their short set basically consisted of a dozen or so variations on the same bag of tricks (best summarised by the effervescent I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You), the tricks were effective, and the mostly 1980s influences (The Cure, New Order, B-52s, Talking Heads) were wisely worn.

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Westlife - Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Tuesday June 24.

In just over a week's time, the four members of Westlife will be celebrating their tenth anniversary as a working outfit. In just under a week's time, the last date on their Back Home tour completed, they will be disappearing from public view for a year-long break.

Looking at the band's extraordinary track record over the last decade -- nine hit albums, twenty-three Top Ten singles and no less than fourteen UK chart-toppers -- the break is clearly well deserved. Whereas most boybands have been lucky to make it past the three year mark, Westlife's enduring success, and their transition from teen scream idols to adult contemporary artists, has seen them tearing up the rule books, and taking their place in the record books. It's an astonishing fact, and one which their detractors would rather not face, but only Elvis Presley and The Beatles have had more Number One singles in this country. Clearly, Westlife must be doing something right.

On record, the band's stock in trade is the romantic ballad. Songs typically start quietly, building up to a sturdy, memorable chorus, and ending with a dramatic flourish. To some, the music sticks to a tiresomely unadventurous formula, which has been stretched way too thin. To others, they simply make for pleasant, undemanding easy listening. But to their loyal fanbase, several thousand of whom packed into the Trent FM Arena last night, singing and waving along to almost every word, they are lapped up with the sort of buoyant, infectious enthusiasm that cannot easily be argued with.

Smart enough to realise that an evening of wall-to-wall ballads would soon start to drag, the boys displayed a versatility on stage that could have surprised some of their critics. The show started in an uptempo mood, and never sunk into smoochiness for too long. The trademark stools were almost entirely absent, only appearing during a three-song acoustic section, and the customary dark suits were soon swapped for more casual gear. Time and effort had been spent on the choreography and the staging, with well conceived visual backdrops and some cracking pyrotechnic effects.

Shane's lead vocals sounded weightier and more authoritative then on record, where they sometimes suffer from a certain weediness. A smiling Kian and a more subdued Mark provided solid backing throughout, while Nicky shamelessly milked the crowd for screams, his enjoyment plain for all to see.

Having built the crowd up to fever pitch with a medley of classic pop covers (The Jacksons, Kool and the Gang, Wham, Robbie Williams), the show's only real wobble came during the stripped-down acoustic section, which couldn't help but expose the underlying weakness of some of the songs. A final run of Home, Us Against The World, Swear It Again and Flying Without Wings provided the necessary uplift, with proceedings being briefly halted for an unscheduled marriage proposal. A banner had been spotted in the crowd ("SHANE, ASK ALEX TO MARRY ME PLEASE!"), and the happy couple were duly hauled to the front of the stage, where Alex bashfully accepted her boyfriend's bold romantic gesture.

The best loved hit was saved for last, as the boys re-appeared in matching white suits for You Raise Me Up, the anthemic final encore. Sure, Westlife's music might be conservative and unchallenging -- but the straightforward pleasure that it brought was a joy to behold. As one of their songs puts it: what's wrong with saying it the easy way?

Set list: Hit You With The Real Thing, World Of Our Own, Something Right, What Makes A Man, Uptown Girl, The Easy Way/ABC, If I Let You Go, Mandy, Medley (Sexyback/Blame It On The Boogie/Get Down On It/I'm Your Man/Let Me Entertain You), I'm Already There, Unbreakable, Queen Of My Heart, Fool Again, Catch My Breath, Home, Us Against The World, Swear It Again, Flying Without Wings, When You're Looking Like That, You Raise Me Up.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yazoo, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday June 11.

Yazoo, Nottingham, June 11 2008

(Photo taken last night by Sarah, from the front row. View the full set here.)

Yazoo's recording career might have been brief, but it was certainly prolific. Between March 1982 and July 1983, Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet released twenty-five songs, spread over four singles and two albums. Last night at the Royal Concert Hall, twenty-five years after splitting, they performed all but four of them, to a loyal -- not to say patient -- bunch of fans, who greeted them like old friends.

Mindful of their limited visual interest on stage, the duo beefed up their show with a giant neon lighting rig and a series of illustrative back projections: an orbiting planet for Mr Blue, a swinging red light bulb for In My Room, kitsch patterned wallpaper for Goodbye 70s, vintage arcade games for Bad Connection.

In musical terms, a similar beefing-up exercise had taken place. Although Vince Clarke's re-worked backing tracks didn't stray too far from the sparse, stark originals, his re-arrangements lent them a renewed power, making full use of the three-dimensional sound system. During Ode To Boy in particular, the simple synth lines bounced from wall to wall, creating a shimmering mesh of sound.

For Alison Moyet, the tour has been an opportunity to perform some of the later Yazoo songs for the first time, completing what she has described as “unfinished business”. Whether bopping away on the dancier numbers (Situation, Don't Go) or losing herself in the darker ballads (Winter Kills, Midnight), her enthusiasm for the task at hand was infectious.

Highlights for the committed fans included a newly added Walk Away From Love, performed for only the second time. As for the nostalgia brigade, set opener Nobody's Diary and the inevitable final encore Only You ("They used it on The Office Christmas special, I was so happy!" beamed Alison) were greeted with fond smiles of recognition.

Yazoo's live reunion might only be brief, but last night's show proved that their music is timeless.

Set List: Nobody's Diary, Bad Connection, Mr. Blue, Good Times, Tuesday, Ode To Boy, Goodbye 70s, Too Pieces, In My Room, Anyone, I Before E Except After C, Walk Away From Love, State Farm, Sweet Thing, Winter Kills, Midnight, Unmarked, Bring Your Love Down (Didn't I), Situation, Dont Go, Only You.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Rascals – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday June 4.

With The Rascals, it’s all about the whammy bar. For those who still nurture a fondness for the likes of Link Wray, The Ventures or Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Miles Kane’s tremolo-laden playing comes as a rare treat. And for those whose memories don’t stretch back further than the first Arctic Monkeys album, The Rascals make an effective, accessible substitute for Alex Turner’s seldom-seen gang.

OK, so the vocal similarities between Messrs Kane and Turner are inescapable – in which case it’s only fitting that they have become close friends, collaborating on the recent chart-topper from the Last Shadow Puppets. But once that particular hurdle has been crossed, The Rascals have much to commend themselves in their own right.

Last night’s set formed an effective showcase for the forthcoming debut album Rascalize: a tidy, spirited collection of observational vignettes, which sees Miles indulging his fondness for people watching. The ominous rumble of Does Your Husband Know You Are On The Run played to all their strengths, as did spiky new single Freakbeat Phantom. The playing was immaculate, the crowd were attentive, and all the elements were in place for a major breakthrough during the festival season.

A great little band. Now watch them go.

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The Futureheads – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday June 3.

For Sunderland four-piece The Futureheads, the next few weeks could well be make or break time. Bloodied but unbowed by the cool reception afforded to their second album, the band have re-grouped their energies, bouncing back with a notably stronger follow-up, This Is Not The World. The new album has charted respectably after its first week in the shops, but there is still much ground to be reclaimed if they are to return to the glory days of 2005.

The band’s undeniably impressive strengths were much in evidence at the Rescue Rooms last night. The tight, taut, economic playing displayed a remarkable cohesion and unity of purpose. The riffs were razor sharp, the songs were clear and concise, and the characteristic vocal interplay was strong and punchy. Set opener Decent Days And Nights sounded as fresh as it did four years ago, and their bold reworking of Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love remained a buoyant, boisterous delight.

Nevertheless, you couldn’t help feeling that they have stayed too long within their comfort zone. Yes, recent single The Beginning Of The Twist might be the best thing they’ve done in ages – but none of the new material represented any noticeable development from what has become a dangerously restrictive template. There were no real changes of pace, no variations in mood, no light and shade, and ultimately no sense of any risks being taken.

The Futureheads still have it in them to be so much more than this, but is time running out?

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Liza Minnelli, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Friday May 30.

"Do you notice anything different about me?" asked Liza Minnelli after her third number, sucking in her cheeks and pouting for comic effect. Having recently shed 44 pounds in weight (apparently thanks to a diet program that she had seen advertised on television), the 62-year old diva looked in amazing shape: trim, toned, in radiant good health, and (as we were to discover during the second half) sporting a pair of legs that would have graced a woman half her age.

But it wasn't only Liza's outward appearance which confounded expectations. Not quite knowing what to expect from someone with such a chequered history and such an erratic track record, many of us had come prepared to make allowances for whatever eccentricities might be in store. As it turned out, we had no need to worry at all.

From the first number (a splendid rendition of Teach Me Tonight) to the final encore (a spellbinding I'll Be Seeing You, performed a cappella), Liza was in full control of her voice, her performance and her audience. Every note was hit; every mark was struck; every nuance was attended to.

This was no booze-addled, pill-popping, delusional spent force, hamming it up and trading on past glories. Instead, what we witnessed was a bravura performance from a consummate artiste, miraculously restored to the height of her powers.

As was explained during a recent interview, Liza's preferred interpretive technique is to inhabit a different character for each song: a "method acting breakdown", as she called it. During the first half in particular, we saw this technique in full effect.

For George Gershwin's The Man I Love, Minnelli's lovelorn yearning was underpinned by a self-mocking wryness, as was only appropriate for a woman four times divorced. Taking an opposite stance, I'm Living Alone And I Like It was sung in the character of a feisty old lady dressed from head to toe in maroon, whom the singer had once met on a New York street corner. For My Own Best Friend (from the musical Chicago), Minnelli transformed into Roxie Hart: on trial for murder, and converting her fear into defiance. And for Cabaret, she once again assumed her Oscar-winning role as Sally Bowles in the film of the same name: laughing in the face of misfortune, with a survivor's resolve to continue living life to the full.

The bulk of the show's second half was given over to an extended tribute to Liza's late godmother Kay Thompson: a key figure in the history of Hollywood, who had given vocal coaching to the likes of Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and Liza's own mother Judy Garland. Given that Thompson is a considerably lesser known figure in this country, this was a section that could easily have flopped. Instead, the lively, full-throttle recreation of her celebrated nightclub act, accompanied by a quartet of song-and-dance boys (The Williams Brothers), swept us up with its sheer energy, successfully evoking the spirit of a lost golden age.

As the two and a half hour show progressed, the standing ovations grew ever more frequent: starting with Maybe This Time in the first half, and climaxing with Minnelli's signature tune New York, New York in the second half. (By this stage, the cheers were erupting even as the song progressed.) Liza rode these waves of adulation in the manner of someone whose stardom is written in their very DNA.

Let there be no doubt about it: this was a truly exceptional show, which will be remembered for years to come by all who witnessed it.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Public Enemy, Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday May 28.

Here in "Nudding Ham", we've grown used to visiting American acts telling us that we're a "special audience". In the case of veteran hip-hoppers Public Enemy, there's a distinct truth behind the sentiment.

Back in the autumn of 1987, the band played a seminal gig at Rock City, which saw them debuting their classic Bring The Noise to wild -- and unexpected -- acclaim. Two decades later, the same song opened a set which was largely given over to a full reconstruction of their most celebrated album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.

With founder member Professor Griff unable to leave the US due to passport problems, Chuck D and Flavor Flav had more work to do than ever. Although the comforts of middle age might have blunted some of their youthful anger (barring the occasional swipe at Bush and Blair, and even a vicious, unrepeatable crack at "Queen Elizabitch" of which Mohammed Al Fayed would have been proud), their energy levels remained impressively high. Riffing off each other in time-honoured fashion -- the preacher and the party animal, the sage and the fool -- their delivery was crisp and sharp, hitting every mark with absolute precision.

This being the last night of the tour, the band invited their production team -- Hank and Keith Shocklee, aka The Bomb Squad -- onto the stage, in order to explain some of the musical thinking behind their groundbreaking masterpiece. Although this broke some of the early momentum, nothing could stop the crowd once Side Two of the album kicked in. (As the Shocklee brothers explained, it was originally conceived as Side One, before a last minute switch was made.)

She Watch Channel Zero got the fists pumping; Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos got us chanting along with its memorable opening lines; and when the delirious squall of Rebel Without A Pause dropped, the venue all but exploded.

The album's final track dispensed with, the band launched into a lengthy greatest hits set, climaxing with a fierce, galvanising Fight The Power. Nearly two and a half hours after taking to the stage, Flavor Flav had to be virtually dragged off it.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Girls Aloud - Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Tuesday May 20.

Budding pop stars, please take note: if you’re going to take on the demands of a full-scale arena tour, then last night’s Girls Aloud show was an object lesson in how to do things properly.

Lesson One: Don’t stint on the Wow Factor. The girls started their set suspended on high wires, black capes flapping in the breeze, before slowly descending into the arms of their hunky male dancers. (Note: if you must make economies, then it’s quite OK to deprive your dancers of their shirts for most of the night.)

Later on, a massive illuminated catwalk dropped from the ceiling, stretching all the way to a platform at the back end of the arena. The girls sashayed across it, crooning and waving all the while, before greeting the folks in the "cheap seats" to wild acclaim, and giving them a three-song performance.

Lesson Two: Don’t cut corners. Many acts have a revolving stage. Girls Aloud’s stage revolved in two directions at once, allowing for some clever choreography. Most acts let off a couple of fireworks towards the end of the show. Girls Aloud’s crew blasted us with pyrotechnics throughout, as well as firing off enough ticker tape to keep the Arena’s cleaning staff busy for days.

Lesson Three: Don’t play it too safe. It takes nerve to drop sure-fire favourites such as No Good Advice, Long Hot Summer and The Show, in favour of album tracks such as Girl Overboard, the pounding crowd-pleaser Close To Love, and the slinky, ska-tinged Control Of The Knife (as mashed up with Kelis’s Trick Me). And it’s a brave act indeed who can take on Robyn’s brilliant but challenging With Every Heartbeat, and make it their own.

Lesson Four: Don’t forget to have fun. In stark contrast to last year’s sulky showing by the Sugababes, the five girls genuinely looked as if they were enjoying themselves. Self-confessed party girl Sarah larged it from beginning to end, while even sulky old Nicola was wreathed in smiles throughout. And while the Sugababes treated each other like strangers, Girls Aloud bonded like a gang of best mates.

Lesson Five: Don’t mime! OK, so Nadine slipped out of key a couple of times. But who knew that Nicola had such a great, gutsy voice?

Lesson Six: Don’t act too cool for school. During the encore of Something Kinda Ooooh, middle-aged mums bopped in the aisles, while the gays squealed and the pre-teens waved their glow-sticks. (My ten year old niece’s verdict: "fantabulous".)

Lesson Seven: Don’t take us for granted. There’s a reason why Girls Aloud have stayed at the top of their game for over five years, with eighteen consecutive Top Ten singles to their name. It’s because they deliver the goods, to the best of their ability, time after time. Long may they continue to delight us.

Set list:
Sexy! No No No...
Girl Overboard
Sound Of The Underground
Close To Love
Can't Speak French
Love Machine
Black Jacks
Whole Lotta History
With Every Heartbeat
I'll Stand By You
Push It
Wake Me Up
Walk This Way
Control Of The Knife/Trick Me
Call The Shots
Something Kinda Ooooh

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Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday May 19.

Back in early January, it was all going so swimmingly for Joe Lean’s preposterously named crew. Tipped by the BBC’s influential “Sound of 2008” poll, and with a second place billing on the NME Awards Tour to look forward to, it seemed as if 2008 was theirs for the asking.

Fast forward to mid-May, and what do we find? That tour’s opening act has the current Number One single (step forward, The Ting Tings), while the Jing Jang Jong have endured a string of wretched reviews and a flop single, and are now playing to scatterings of mildly curious, mostly non-committal punters at half-empty venues like the Rescue Rooms.

Based on this almost laughably dismal show (under 45 minutes, no encore), you had to wonder how they got to be so handsomely hyped in the first place. Granted, some of their early demos showed sparks of personality and potential, before being flattened into generic indie-lite – but the JJJ’s most glaring weakness was their utter inability to engage the crowd.

The chief offender in this respect was Joe Lean himself: a front man so fundamentally irritating that his sheer cluelessness almost bordered on the heroic. From his skinny-hipped Jagger-esque wiggle to his Lydon-esque thousand yard stare, none of his rag-bag of semi-digested poses rang true.

Stuck at the side of the stage, and displaying more energy and commitment then the rest of the band put together, drummer James Craig (aka “Bummer Jong”) deserved better than this bunch of sorry chancers. Perhaps his time is yet to come.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

The Orb – Rescue Rooms, Thursday May 15.

It’s hard to believe that The Orb have been a going concern for the past twenty years. These days, the band is essentially a vehicle for founder member Alex Paterson, plus whatever collaborators he has happened to gather around him. On this tour, Alex’s sampling and live DJ-ing is augmented by Fil Lump on assorted computer gadgetry, Keith York on live drums, and an MC called Eric.

Given the music’s mostly instrumental nature, MC Eric had the easiest job of the night, his vocal duties mostly confined to asking us how we are feeling. (The answer for most of this 90% male crowd being, to varying degrees: enthusiastic, energetic and euphoric.) Eric’s big vocal moment was a decidedly unlikely cover of David Essex’s Rock On. It was one more element in a thoroughly eclectic stew, which extended well beyond the band’s trademark ambient dub. Snatches of rock, ska and systems music were woven into the mix, along with looped rap samples (you had to feel sorry for Eric) and even the opening credits for Star Trek.

The lengthy set peaked with old favourites Little Fluffy Clouds and The Blue Room, before a mostly DJ-based interlude gave way to a banging, techno-heavy finale.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Here And Now tour, Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Friday May 9.

The first night of this year’s ever-bankable Here And Now tour saw the Trent FM Arena transformed into one giant Reflex bar, as seven chart acts from the 1980s wheeled out their old hits and several thousand eager thirty- and forty-somethings turned back the clock with them. This time around, the focus was on the latter part of the decade, and particularly the years 1987 and 1988: an era when yuppies ruled the roost, Gary Davies and Bruno Brookes ruled the airwaves, and "club culture" still meant wearing a shirt and tie to get into Ritzys. If you were at the right age to be buying Smash Hits and watching The Chart Show, then this was the show for you. Any older or any younger, and you might have found yourself muttering that old cliché: nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Hands up, who remembers Cutting Crew? With only two hits to their name (and only two members left in their line-up), the duo were on and off the stage in the blink of an eye. This was a shame, as Nick Van Eede turned in on of the best vocal performances of the night, backed by some appealingly flashy soft-rock soloing from guitarist Gareth Moulton.

Johnny Hates Jazz fared slightly better, being permitted to perform three of their four hits, in what was announced as only their second ever live appearance in the UK. Opening with the anti-war song I Don’t Want To Be A Hero, they provided the night’s one brief nod to "social commentary" -- an element that was key to much of the decade’s most memorable music. The band’s trademark slick suits were back, but sadly not their original vocalist Clark Datchler. New vocalist Danny Saxon gave a passable imitation, but his somewhat puny delivery failed to ignite the arena crowd.

Anyone expecting to see the full original line-up of Curiosity Killed The Cat was in for a disappointment, as singer Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot shambled onto the stage accompanied by, er, nobody. According to Ben (whose unique line in stage patter is best described as "eccentric"), the other three members "said Hi" and "sent their love". Hands up, who believed him? As Ben diddled aimlessly around the stage, drifting in and out of key, and looking thoroughly out of his depth, it was enough to make you feel nostalgic for Cutting Crew.

With the evening in danger of floundering in a half-baked stew of half-remembered mediocrity, it was time for a seasoned professional and a proper star to rescue the proceedings. On that score, ABC’s Martin Fry delivered in spades. A veteran of the nostalgia tour circuit, he knew what was expected of him, and he knew how to pitch it to perfection. As the opening chords of Poison Arrow rang out, the whole night stepped up a notch, the crowd rising to their feet and bellowing along with some of the sharpest pop lyrics ever written. If Ben from Curiosity was the random youth trying to chat you up at the bus stop, Martin from ABC was the smooth gigolo, sweeping you off your feet in the cocktail bar.

Boasting a similar veteran’s pedigree, Paul Young gave an equally arena-friendly performance, hurling his mike stand around the shop in best Rod Stewart style. Although numbers such as Love Of The Common People suffered from the absence of female backing singers (hands up, who remembers the Fabulous Wealthy Tarts?), and although Young struggled with his upper register on Come Back And Stay and Senza Una Donna, a terrific extended performance of I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down turned out to be the night’s unexpected musical highlight. In particular, it allowed the six-piece house band to demonstrate what they were made of. On stage for the full three hours, during which they trawled through thirty-seven songs and a myriad of musical styles, the band were the unsung heroes of the night.

As the acts got bigger, the sets grew longer. Bananarama managed nine songs in thirty-five minutes, spanning seven of their most successful hit-making years. With founder member Siobhan and substitute member Jacquie long gone, Keren and Sara have been performing as a duo since the early 1990s, cranking out their roster of camp classics with a delightful disregard for stage-school slickness (they still have trouble remembering the set list) and sophisticated vocal technique (you’ll still search in vain for a harmony line). That said, the set was tightly and ably choreographed, the girls being joined on stage by a pair of humpy male backing dancers.

And finally, and to a hero’s welcome: Rick Astley, making his debut on the nostalgia circuit, and cheerfully admitting to finding the whole experience overwhelming and bizarre. Now re-established in the nation’s affections thanks to an Internet phenomenon known as "rickrolling", Astley surfed a tide of goodwill from the crowd, which was almost enough to cover his lack of memorable hit singles. (Hands up, who can name more than three of them?) Admittedly, it all got a bit Cruise Ship during his syrupy cover of When I Fall In Love, and even Rick himself seemed less than enamoured of some of the later Stock Aitken Waterman hits (he could barely wait to get to the end of the frankly rubbish Take Me To Your Heart, exclaiming "will this madness never end?" during the final chorus). However, all was forgiven in time for the grand finale, and the only chart-topping song of the whole night: the immortal Never Gonna Give You Up, which duly raised the roof and sent the crowd home happy.

Set list:

Cutting Crew: I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight, I’ve Been In Love Before.

Johnny Hates Jazz: I Don’t Want To Be A Hero, Turn Back The Clock, Shattered Dreams.

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Down To Earth, Misfit, Ordinary Day, Name And Number, Hang On In There Baby.

ABC: Poison Arrow, Tears Are Not Enough, All Of My Heart, When Smokey Sings, The Look Of Love.

Paul Young: Love Of The Common People, Come Back And Stay, Senza Una Donna, I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down, Every Time You Go Away.

Bananarama: Cruel Summer, Really Saying Something, Robert De Niro’s Waiting, I Heard A Rumour, Nathan Jones, I Want You Back, Love In The First Degree, Venus, Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).

Rick Astley: Together Forever, She Wants To Dance With Me, Hold Me In Your Arms, When I Fall In Love, Take Me To Your Heart, Cry For Help, Whenever You Need Somebody, Never Gonna Give You Up.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Seth Lakeman, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Wednesday April 23.

Seth Lakeman likes the Rescue Rooms, and with good reason. One of his first gigs was at the venue, and its warmth and intimacy have always suited him well. However, times and circumstances change.

Three years after his breakthrough nomination at the Mercury Music Prize, and less than two years after his Freedom Fields album cracked the Top Forty, Seth has reached a level of popular success which no other young English folk artist has reached since the days of Steeleye Span, over thirty years ago. Quite simply, he has outgrown the venue, which by his own admission resembled a “sweat pit” last night.

There’s nothing wrong with sweat pits, of course: but for all the muscular, percussive energy on display, something vital was lost along the way. Lakeman’s songs are mostly centred around stories, and successful story-telling requires a certain degree of calm, focussed concentration – particularly when, in the case of the selections from the forthcoming album Poor Man’s Heaven, the stories haven’t been heard before.

Without that direct, personal connection between artist and audience, the newer material fell somewhat flat. Seth is an able guitar player and a more than nifty fiddle player – indeed, the solo voice-and-fiddle pieces went down better than anything else – but he is no virtuoso either, and so his performance fell rather between two stools.

Nevertheless, it was still a delight to witness further evidence of English folk’s unexpected and wholly deserved revival – and on St George’s Day itself, what could have been more appropriate?

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Friday, April 11, 2008

The Breeders – Nottingham Trent University, Thursday April 10.

The Breeders are not a band to be rushed. Released at the beginning of this week, Mountain Battles is only their fourth album in eighteen years. It’s a murky, low-fi, subdued affair, whose understated charm sneaks up on you from behind. Unlike 1993’s breakthrough album Last Splash, it won’t be going internationally platinum any time soon. These days, that’s hardly the point.

As on record, so they were on stage: unhurried, slightly shambling, not making a big deal out of themselves. An amiable goofiness, which masked a calm, clear sense of purpose.

Leading the band as always, but resisting the centre stage limelight, a broadly beaming Kim Deal set the mood of the whole show. “When are you going to marry me?” shouted one fan. “No warrants, a licence and a job, that’s all I ask”, she batted back, with an earthy cackle.

Her addictions long since conquered, Kim’s sister Kelley looked weather-beaten yet gamine, her singing voice as sweet as ever. Later this year, she’ll be publishing a book of knitting patterns: “Bags That Rock: Knitting on the Road”. How times change.

Trent Uni’s student union building is a sadly underused venue, whose superb acoustic played to the band’s strengths. The slower material from Mountain Battles resonated and captivated, while old favourites like Divine Hammer and the classic Cannonball retained a box-fresh sparkle.

Like Kim’s former band The Pixies, you can never quite pin down what makes The Breeders so special. You just instinctively know that they’re a class act.

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John Barrowman - Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday April 9.

Witnessing first-hand the squeals of female delight which greeted his every move, I suddenly realised that John Barrowman might be something unique: an openly gay heartthrob, whose unequivocal frankness merely adds to his appeal. If that sounds like a contradiction, then it’s certainly not one which bothered either the artist or his adoring audience, whose tangible rapport was wonderful to behold.

Drawing on his long experience in musical theatre, Barrowman delivered a highly accomplished performance, mixing pop standards and favourite show tunes with sparky quips and occasionally tear-jerking personal stories, all with the total self-assurance of a seasoned professional.

Although a gifted musical interpreter, Barrowman was canny enough to realise that, in his new incarnation as a Saturday night prime time TV regular, he would have to up the cheese factor: Barry Manilow numbers, Latino rump-shakers, I Am What I Am histrionics, the works.

Occasionally, he overstepped the mark: an over-familiar Amarillo was an end-of-the-pier gesture too far. But for the most part, the balance between showmanship and song craft was ably struck.

Highlights for the music lovers included fine renditions of Nina Simone’s Feelin’ Good and I Won’t Send Roses (from Mack and Mabel). Highlights for the fans included special appearances from Captain Jack’s greatcoat and the Elvis outfit from Dancing On Ice.

Who cared if the outfits got the bigger cheers? Certainly not the ebullient Barrowman, whose infectiously gleeful determination to make the absolute most of his “moment in the sun” may be his biggest asset of all.

See also: my interview with John Barrowman, November 2007.

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Barry Adamson - Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Sunday April 6.

A Barry Adamson gig outside London is rare enough, but a full tour is something quite unprecedented. Last seen here in 1984 with the Bad Seeds, Adamson’s long overdue return saw him fronting a six piece band, and promoting his eighth solo album, Back To The Cat.

Although a multi-instrumentalist in the studio, Barry played no instruments on stage (unless you counted a vintage Rolf Harris Stylopohone, which was briefly brandished and caressed in the manner of an axe hero giving a virtuoso performance). Shaven-headed, sharply dressed and powerfully built, he prowled the stage with the arresting presence of a retired boxer, immersing himself in the characters of his filmic, retro-flavoured “imaginary soundtracks”.

As the set progressed, selections from the new album increasingly dominated – as well they might, given that this is possibly Adamson’s most immediate, audience-friendly work to date, and hence the inspiration for breaking with precedent and staging the tour. I Could Love You flirted with deep soul, Straight ‘Til Sunrise mixed Bacharach-style breeziness with lyrical darkness, and the rousing, anthemic Civilization drew the loudest cheers.

The band encored with the album’s brooding opener Beaten Side Of Town, before closing with a slinky re-working of Sly Stone’s (and Magazine’s) Thank You.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Twilight Sad – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Tuesday March 25.

Twilight Sad

Nearly a year after the release of their debut album, the critical plaudits continue to roll in for this five-piece band from Kilsyth, near Glasgow. On the strength of Tuesday night’s arresting show, it is easy to see why. Taking the so-called “shoegazing” music of the early 1990s as their starting point, the Twilight Sad mix the widescreen, effects-laden sound of My Bloody Valentine with the fuzzed-out squall of the Jesus and Mary Chain, adding some of the sweetness of classic Phil Spector for good measure.

Perhaps their nearest contemporary counterparts are the much-vaunted Glasvegas, particularly in the heavily accented vocal department – but the material is denser, less immediate, less anthemic, and altogether more personal.

Standing at right angles to the stage, singer James Graham combined Ian Curtis-like intensity with a gentler, more measured approach. The overall impact was undeniably dramatic – but it was also unexpectedly uplifting, and almost reassuring.

(Photo taken on November 29, 2007 by nailest)

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Duffy - Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Friday March 7.

(Yesterday marked the end of my Four Gigs In Four Nights Project. Here's the final instalment.)

Duffy, Bristol, Feb 26 2008

If Duffy's swift and seemingly effortless rise to fame has sometimes felt like the work of an uncommonly slick and efficient marketing machine, then you have to wonder what glitch in the masterplan allowed her to end up playing a tiny venue like the Bodega. With Mercy enjoying at its third week at Number One, and with her debut album Rockferry set to enter the charts at the same position, she could have filled a venue five times the size -- and so it was very much to her credit that she opted to honour the booking.

As the Bodega isn't exactly in the business of hosting chart-topping acts, there was a palpable sense of occasion in the room, as the lucky few jostled for position. In keeping with the singer's star status, a full-sized mixing desk had been installed, reducing the available space still further. If our applause seemed muted, it was simply because we were wedged in so tightly that clapping had become a physical impossibility.

For Duffy herself, the show represented a fresh opportunity: to play her songs to an audience who were already familiar with them. Her excitement was evident, and charmingly genuine. Instead of the cool, untouchable professional polish that might have been expected, she radiated an unspun, girl-next-door quality, still very much the former Welsh waitress made good, and with something of the friendly, homely appeal of a young Dolly Parton. Even her slightly gawky stage banter ("and my next song is called...") worked to her advantage, bringing her appeal down to a thoroughly human level.

When a dramatic pause in one song accidentally exposed one audience member in full (and foul-mouthed) conversational flow, she milked the moment to full advantage: grinning in mock-horror, sharing the joke, and stretching the pause almost to breaking point before resuming the song to loud whoops of appreciation. "You're so... fluffy!", exclaimed one excited punter. "Yeah -- fluffy Duffy!", she beamed, lapping up the compliment.

Although breathless comparisons have been made with Amy Winehouse and even Dusty Springfield, these do not serve her well. Vocally, the 23-year old is a good deal more eager Lulu than measured Dusty -- but as some clued-up commentators have already spotted (and as a few visits to YouTube will confirm), her singing bears a particularly striking resemblance to the long-forgotten early 1980s singer Carmel.

Right from the first few notes of the opening number Rockferry, it was clear that the bright young starlet had the vocal skills to justify the hype. Hers is a powerful, dramatic instrument, which can confidently ride a melody and sweep you up with its sheer force. Yes, it still lacks a certain emotional depth -- but equally, it doesn't seek to compensate with false shows of manufactured melodrama.

For Duffy is who she is: an essentially cheerful girl, who readily confessed that she had never truly been in love ("Or maybe I have? Oh, I don't know! What is love, anyway?"), and whose strongest suit is a gently assertive, not-going-to-take-any-nonsense-from-you-mister approach. By and large, her songs are not yet written from personal experience, and nor do they claim to be. Either that will come in time, raising her artistry to greater heights, or else Duffy will settle into the sort of role previously occupied by the likes of Sam Brown: a happy trouper, with many years of guest appearances with Jools Holland ahead of her. It will be fascinating to see how she develops -- and after last night's wholly delightful performance, only the most grudging of cynics could fail to wish her well.

(Photo taken at the Bristol Thekla on February 26th 2008 by podiluska, and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.)

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Friday, March 07, 2008

The Beat / Neville Staple – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday March 6.

Neville Staple, Austria, Aug 30 2007
A heaving, happy moshpit is always a joy to behold. When the average age of that moshpit is around 45 years old (as well as being one of the largest that the Rescue Rooms has ever seen), you know you’ve stumbled across something very special indeed.

Former Specials and Fun Boy Three front man Neville Staple is 53, and as up for it as ever. Although never exactly the creative powerhouse of either band, he brought a spirited vitality to both – and with his current and surprisingly excellent team of backing musicians, that same spirit remains gloriously undimmed. As they ploughed their way through old ska classics (Monkey Man, Pressure Drop) and Specials favourites (Gangsters, Rat Race, Ghost Town), you were left wondering why they hadn’t been the headline act all along.

Following such all-out mayhem, The Beat had a tough job maintaining the same momentum – but their looser, dubbier, more fluid and spacious sound eventually restored energy levels to maximum. Although only two original members remain – drummer Everett Morton and singer Ranking Roger – the spirit of the old recordings shone through, boosted by some splendid sax playing from an uncredited new member, who bore a distinct resemblance to original band leader Dave Wakeling. Additional vocal contributions came from Roger’s son, Ranking Junior, whose youthful braggadocio brought an extra edge to the performance. Of the old hits, Too Nice To Talk To and Mirror In The Bathroom sounded particularly fine, reminding us of a remarkable period in British musical history.

(Photo of Neville Staple taken on August 30th 2007 by nacaseven, and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.)

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Gary Numan: Replicas tour, Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday March 5.

At most shows, there’s something both distracting and annoying about the inevitable sea of phone screens, wafting above the heads of the crowd. At last night’s re-creation of Replicas – Gary Numan’s 1979 breakthrough album, which famously deals with themes of alienation in an increasingly mechanised world – the phenomenon seemed almost appropriate, as if the phone-wielders could only experience the show at one remove.

In a rare concession to nostalgia, the album was performed in full, albeit in a different track sequence, and augmented by sundry B-sides and outtakes from the same period. Considering the critical panning that Replicas was given at the time, the songs held up magnificently, sounding as fresh and as relevant as ever.

As for Numan, who turns fifty on Saturday, middle age had not dimmed his singular and remarkable charisma in any respect, the cragginess of his face somehow serving to accentuate that essential other-ness. More crucially, his absolute belief in the old material – the anthemic Down In The Park, the helpless Me I Disconnect From You, the prophetic We Are So Fragile – was palpable, and helped to fuel a truly compelling performance.

Three decades ago, the rock snobs dismissed Numan as an opportunistic Bowie copyist, whose fluked fame would quickly fade. How wrong they were. Thirty years on, with his reputation fully restored and his influence widely acknowledged, the last laugh belongs not to the cracked actor who fell to earth, but to the authentically angst-driven alien who came in from the cold.

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Delays – Nottingham Bodega Social Club – Tuesday March 4.

It’s unusual for a young, fairly successful band to play progressively smaller venues with each visit – but unaccountably, Southampton four-piece Delays have managed to slide from the capacious (Trent University, 2004) to the comfortable (Rescue Rooms, 2006) to the compact (Bodega Social, last night). For a band of their undoubted abilities, whose brand of good-natured, well-turned indie-power-pop compares more than favourably with the competition, this seems less than fair.

Still looking astonishingly youthful, and with a third album ready to drop next month, the band kicked off the hour-long set with perhaps their best known number, Long Time Coming. New material such as forthcoming single Hooray and the impressive sounding Pieces held their own against the instantly recognisable glam-rock stomp of Hideaway and the electronically propulsive set-closer Valentine – but there were few signs of any major musical progression. This is a band who knows what they’re good at, and who have chosen to stick within their limits.

Perhaps it was the messy sound mix (had there been a proper sound check?), or perhaps it was the crowd’s reserve (“They’ve got rigor mortis!” wailed one frustrated punter), but things never quite gelled. Maybe it was just the wrong venue, on the wrong night.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Menomena – Nottingham Rescue Rooms / MGMT – Nottingham Bodega Social, Thursday February 28

(In which I put my blagging skills to the test at the door of The Social, and wonder afterwards whether it was worth it...)

Thanks to a staggered timetable and some canny cross-promotion via Facebook, dedicated followers of US alt-rock were given the opportunity to see two critically acclaimed bands in two different venues, all in the space of a couple of hours.

Over at the Rescue Rooms, the larger venue drew the smaller crowd. Menonema, a three-piece act from Portland Oregon, took an intriguingly experimental approach, with band members swapping instruments and alternating on vocals. Judicious use of foot pedals and a laptop fleshed out the surprisingly widescreen sound, and an amiably loose-limbed, musicianly vibe predominated. Although far from immediate in terms of melody and rhythm, the songs maintained a textural interest throughout, with all manner of pleasing twists and turns along the way.

Up at the Bodega, the smaller venue was packed to capacity, possibly due to MGMT’s recent appearance on BBC2’s Later. The Brooklyn five-piece adopted a tougher, more visceral style, whose relatively timid conservatism came as a disappointment after the Rescue Rooms show. Around the venue, concentration lapsed and conversations broke out. Yes, they might be the band of the moment – but one has to wonder how long that moment will last.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

System 7, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Friday February 15th.

Written using Q10, a nifty little freeware full screen text editor that updates your word count against a pre-set target as you type. Early days, but I'm rather fond. (via Gordon)

As trance/techno audiences go, System 7's are one of the least typical. For every fresh-faced, lithe-limbed club kid, you could count at least two or three more seasoned souls in their late forties (and all points upwards), doubtless partly drawn by Steve Hillage's 1970s prog-rock pedigree.

Accompanied by long term partner and fellow Gong survivor Miquette Giraudy on keyboards and associated knob-twiddling, Hillage added that rarest of ingredients to a dance event: live electric guitar. A thousand miles away from the florid, noodly flailings of his prog days, his playing is more ambient and textural these days: another ingredient in the mix, rather than the over-arching dominant sound.

There's not much to look at during a System 7 gig. Both performers remained fairly static throughout, bearing benign half-smiles of concentration that sometimes lapsed into scrunched-up expressions of outright bliss. The music ranged from the chilled to the pounding, with the accent on the latter, but the rich, intricate over-layering of the melodies prevented the underlying rhythms from ever becoming oppressive.

Selections from the recently released Phoenix album were blended into the mix throughout, with Hinotori, Space Bird and particularly the Gong-sampling Strange Beings galvanising this uniquely diverse crowd.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Laura Veirs - Nottingham The Maze, Tuesday February 12th.

Laura Veirs

Her manner might be gentle and bookish, her songwriting might be quiet and introspective, but Laura Veirs knows a good ferris wheel when she sees one. "We went round the Nottingham Eye five times!", she exclaimed. "That's five quid per time! I thought it would only be once; that would be more American."

Although technical problems forced her to abandon the live looping equipment halfway through the second number, Laura retained a relaxed, conversational demeanour throughout her solo acoustic set. Rather than plugging her latest release Saltbreakers, she drew on material from five of her six albums ("but not the first one; that was dumb"), offering to mail us her sold out CDs personally after the tour finishes.

Laura's compositions tend towards the contemplative and abstract, with echoes of Kristin Hersh's 1990s work. Drawing on images from mythology and the natural world - dragons and mermaids, nightingales and butterflies - her enigmatic lyrics require close concentration. In this respect, The Maze proved an ideal venue. Although packed to capacity, the silence was unbroken throughout, save for a "free improv" massed whistling session halfway through.

An excellent version of Wrecking closed the set, to sustained and deserved applause.

Photo taken on February 1st 2008 by Nick Bramhall, and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lorna Luft - Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Monday February 11.

Lorna Luft signs Mike's CD

For Lorna Luft, a show business veteran of over thirty-five years' standing, Songs My Mother Taught Me - a two hour tribute to her mother Judy Garland - represents both a reconciliation and a celebration. Having spent years trying to outrun the shadow cast by Garland's legendary status, Luft has reached a point in her life where she can publicly express her gratitude, and salute her late mother's remarkable genius.

Backed by a ten piece orchestra, with British husband Colin Freeman directing the music, Lorna took us on a journey of fond remembrance. The show started with Garland serenading her young daughter on the screen, before a beaming, effusive Luft took to the stage in a sparkling silver gown.

In less capable hands, performing a live duet with one's dead mother could have could have been a recipe for toe-curling tastelessness. Thanks to Luft's experience and judgement, the risk paid off, the two voices harmonising deftly and tenderly.

The show's accent remained firmly on the positive, as Lorna regaled us with comic anecdotes that revealed Judy as quite the outrageous prankster, rather than the tragic figure of popular imagining (a misconception which apparently drove both mother and daughter "nuts" with exasperation). Tribute was also paid to the "Rat Pack" - a title which Garland bestowed upon them in jest - and in particular to Luft's godfather Frank Sinatra and surrogate uncle Sammy Davis Junior.

The highlight of the second half was a marathon medley which traced Garland's journey from inauspicious beginnings (Born In A Trunk) to her 1961 triumph at Carnegie Hall. Finally, and in preference to appropriating Judy's signature tune Over The Rainbow for herself, Lorna opted to intertwine the archive recording with her own Shining Star, to richly moving effect. It was a fitting climax to a bravura display of classic show business values, lovingly staged and beautifully sung.

Photo taken, despite a fair deal of "BUT OH NO I COULDN'T POSSIBLY!" protestation from myself (after all, you know how I hate to push myself forward), by Sarah R, at the CD signing which followed the show.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Boy George, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Friday February 8th.

"You came here tonight not knowing what to expect, and that's what you're going to get", announced Boy George at the start of his show, midway through his first UK tour in a decade. "It's an intimate show; it's not X Factor. Do you like the hat?"

Perhaps in order to encourage that feeling of "intimacy", the stage was stripped bare of all props, with no backdrops and no special lighting. George's four piece band played a sparsely arranged, mostly acoustic-driven set, aided by two backing singers who occasionally provided lead vocals. A special mention was given to the drummer, who was playing his first night with the band after just a day's rehearsal. Given George's well-documented turbulent relationships with former drummers, one couldn't help but wonder what had happened to the old one.

George has stated that the purpose of the tour is to "re-establish myself as an artist", and to "re-establish my reputation as a human being, which I think has been pretty torn apart over the last few years." Despite various recent run-ins with the law, and long periods away from the public spotlight, he still retains a special place in our affections, attracting a broad cross-section of ages and backgrounds in his audience. The goodwill was still there. All had to do now was deliver.

And here, unfortunately, is where the problem lay. Perhaps because of those long absences from stage performing, the O'Dowd pipes are not altogether what they used to be. Gone was the honeyed sweetness of his 1980s recordings, replaced by a gravely rasp which, although still not without soulful expressiveness, lacked both range and finesse. Far too many of his best known numbers were sung without reference to their original melodies, as George improvised awkwardly phrased harmony parts that, in terms of pitch, kept him safely within his comfort zone. (During Do You Really Want To Hurt Me and Karma Chameleon, the melodies were so comprehensively abandoned that the crowd struggled to sing along.) More annoyingly, he displayed an over-fondness for interrupting himself with a series of repetitively high pitched whoops, which added nothing to the interpretations.

This could simply have been down to lack of practice, but George betrayed more nervousness than his articulate, waspish public persona would have you believe. Perhaps he was simply scared of pushing for those higher and lower notes, having convinced himself that his voice was no longer up to the job? On the strength of last night's show, the problems that we witnessed were nothing that a skilled vocal coach couldn't help put right - provided that George is genuinely prepared to re-dedicate himself to his craft, and to put long, hard hours of work in.

That said, there were still flashes of the old brilliance, particularly towards the end of the set (two hours, with a badly timed interval after the first 35 minutes). A beautiful duet with Lizzy Dean on the old Culture Club ballad That's The Way, backed by a solo piano, played to all his strengths, as did the gospel-flavoured rendition of the old civil rights anthem This Little Light Of Mine which followed.

Best of all, an unscripted final encore of Generations Of Love, as requested from the audience, was little short of dazzling. Fully warmed up by now, and singing on "extra time" purely for the love of it, George gave one of his finest compositions the performance it deserved, stepping to the front of the stage and singing out to the whole hall, instead of relying on the usual foot-shuffling and general diddling around.

All he needs to do now is build on those still remarkable strengths, and find the confidence to overcome his self-imposed weaknesses.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Nouvelle Vague / Gabriella Cilmi, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday February 7.

Is the world ready for yet another "new Amy Winehouse"? In these current Adele/Duffy dominated times, perhaps not quite yet - but it's hardly Gabreilla Cilmi's fault that vocally, she happens to be a dead ringer for everyone's favourite "troubled" diva.

Displaying an astonishing maturity for her sixteen years, this Australian singer-songwriter turned in a polished, practised set, mixing original compositions such as forthcoming single Sweet About Me with a sprightly, soulful cover of Kylie's Can't Get You Out Of My Head. Although currently best known for her version of Echo Beach, as featured on the ITV drama series of the same name, there are already clear signs of a major marketing push, which may well establish her before the year is through.

There's a certain Smug Middle Class Dinner Party element to some of Nouvelle Vague's bossa nova reworkings of post-punk classics, which can frankly be a bit off-putting. Towards the start of their set, this element was very much at the forefront, leaving one wondering how soon the joke was going to wear thin.

Thankfully, as lightweight crowd pleasers such as Ever Fallen In Love and Blue Monday gave way to lesser known material, and as the band switched from pure bossa nova to a more rock based approach, the inherent darkness of the material came more to the forefront, and an altogether more satisfying experience began to emerge. Tackling One Hundred Years - possibly the bleakest song that The Cure have ever recorded ("It doesn't matter if we all die") - was a bold move, and a risk which paid off artistically, even if it failed to quell the increasingly irritating chatter from the dinner party brigade towards the back of the venue.

The four piece band was fronted by two new singers, Nadeah and Marianne, each radiating a strangely off-kilter kind of glamour: arch, arresting, and über-cool. In the middle of the Dead Kennedys' Too Drunk To F***, Nadeah jumped off the stage, tore through the crowd and sprang onto the bar, where she strutted precariously in a parody of wasted inebriation. Having secured a full pint of lager from the bar staff, she was back on stage in seconds, with barely a drop spilt. You simply had to admire the woman's style.

While as yet unreleased covers of Devo's Girl You Want and Richard Hell's Blank Generation (done as a jazzy strut, with liberal lashings of ennui) drew favourable receptions, the biggest cheers of the night went to The Clash's Guns Of Brixton and Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, the latter showing clear signs of turning into a Nottingham anthem by proxy. (Well, we've all seen Control, haven't we?) Its reception - and the massed singalong, which continued even after the band left the stage - seemed to take the band by surprise, but they capitalised on the moment magnificently, returning after only a couple of minutes, and picking up the song where they left off. Never was an "encore" more deserving of its name.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Glasvegas, Bodega Social Club, Thursday January 31.

Glasvegas, Hackney Empire, July 2007

Photo taken at the Hackney Empire, July 14th 2007 by armcurl, and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

For a band who have yet to be signed to a major label, the hype machine has been rolling hard for this Glasgow foursome. Bigged up by the BBC, feted by the NME (where their forthcoming single is currently Track of the Week), praised by former Creation boss Alan McGee ("the most important band of the last twenty years"), and even schmoozed by Lisa Marie Presley, their future success already feels like a done deal.

Having all but killed the anticipatory buzz by subjecting us to a thirty minute tape of slow 1950s doo-wop, the band sauntered on stage in a haze of dry ice, and launched into a half hour set of extraordinary intensity.

Their reference points might be well worn – Phil Spector, surf-rock, the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine – but the sheer strength of the songwriting ensured that Glasvegas effortlessly transcended their influences. Quiffed up like a young Joe Strummer, singer James Allan belted out future anthems such as Go Square Go and It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry with articulate conviction.

The set climaxed with the remarkable Daddy’s Gone – part accusation, part pledge – and a fuzzed-out thrash through The Ronettes’ Be My Baby.

See also: "It's Not For The Cock": review of the same show.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Alison Moyet, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday January 23.

Following a wretched eight year struggle with her old record company, Alison Moyet emerged from the musical wilderness in 2002. Three albums later, with full artistic control firmly established, she has never sounded happier, more confident, or in better voice.

Last night's set began in subdued style, with a selection of smouldering ballads that ranged from a cover of Windmills Of Your Mind to a sultry, stripped down, bitterly accusing All Cried Out. The pace quickened for a rapturously received Love Resurrection, making a welcome re-appearance after many years in mothballs. An audience request for Dorothy was instantly and cheerfully granted, with characteristic disregard for the strictures of the set list.

Current album The Turn was well represented, with seven selections. The more intimate, theatrical numbers worked best of all, particularly a heart-stopping rendition of The Man In The Wings. In stark contrast, a messy attempt at It's Not The Thing Henry was stopped short after the first minute. (“I just didn't feel like it” explained Alison, with a casual shrug of the shoulders.)

The twenty-three song set covered the full extent of Moyet's career, stretching back to her early days with Yazoo. Of her solo albums, only 1987's Raindancing was given the cold shoulder -- a snub which suggested that she was never too happy with the bland MOR pop direction that was being foisted upon her at the time.

Perhaps the highlight of the whole evening was an all-acoustic “unplugged” version of Whispering Your Name. Like many of the strongest performances, it benefited from the absence of the drummer, who struggled to quell his desire to rock out during some of the quieter numbers.

An extended encore started with a Jacques Brel number, sung in the original French, and ended with a rip-roaring, triumphant Don't Go.

Set list:
One More Time
Wishing You Were Here
Windmills Of Your Mind
All Cried Out
Can't Say It Like I Mean It
Love Resurrection
The Man In The Wings
Only You
Love Letters
The Sharpest Corner (Hollow)
This House
Whispering Your Name
It's Not The Thing Henry
Come Together
Momma Momma
La Chanson Des Vieux Amants
That Old Devil Called Love
Don't Go

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British Sea Power, Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday January 22.

As a warm-up to British Sea Power's aural onslaught, Glasgow six-piece Make Model provided an amiable if underwhelming set of chunky, chugging, mid-paced indie-pop. Melodically strong but rhythmically restricted, the band were held back by under-confidence.

Thirty minutes later, the onslaught began. Thanks to its cannily timed release date, which has taken full advantage of the traditional January lull, British Sea Power's third album has gathered plaudits from all quarters, placing them very much as the band of the moment.

With drummer Woody laid up with a back injury, stand-in Tom White (Electric Soft Parade/Brakes) did an outstanding fill-in job. Numbers were further swelled by a violinist and a keyboard/brass player.

The set was dominated by cuts from the new album, punctuated by crowd-pleasers such as Please Stand Up and The Spirit Of St. Louis, which saw guitarist Noble scaling the outside of the balcony, tambourine in hand, before dropping down into the crowd below. Of the new material, current single Waving Flags drew the biggest response, showing clear signs of being a future festival anthem.

As usual, vocals were shared between Yan and Hamilton, who matched each other in concentrated intensity. For Atom, a 1940s air raid siren was hoisted onto the middle of the stage; it returned for the encore, which climaxed with an ear-splitting and cathartic twenty-minute version of No Lucifer.

Regular visitors to the Rescue Rooms over the years, the band have never sounded so focussed and confident. On the strength of this stunning set, 2008 could be theirs for the taking.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mike's gigs of 2007.

This year, I attended a whopping 58 gigs (compared with a mere 30 in 2006), and I thoroughly enjoyed the vast majority of them. These were my absolute favourites.

1. From The Jam, Rescue Rooms, May
When the chants down the front changed from "We are the mods" to "Who needs Weller?" you knew Bruce and Rick's gamble had paid off.

2. Beyoncé, Arena, June
Also the winner of 2007's How Many Superlatives Can I Cram Into One Review Award. If only all Arena gigs were of this exemplary standard...

3. Cardiacs, Rescue Rooms, November
Revelation of the year! This lot have been together for 30 years, and yet I've only just discovered them. Proving that prog and punk CAN mix, and that songs with impossible time signatures can still be moshable.

4. Los Campesinos!, Social, March
In some respects, as traditionally "indie" as indie gets (shambling undergraduates in charity-shop cardigans, all very Peel Would Approve) - and as such, not something which would normally float my boat - but when it's done as captivatingly well as this, I'm not about to argue.

5. Amy Winehouse / Mr. Hudson & the Library, Rock City, March
The wheels may have fallen off Amy's wagon rather too often since, but we had it lucky: she was straight, sober and stunning. Having initially found Back To Black rather too mannered to convice, I emerged from this show fully converted.

6. Feist, Social, September
On the night that 1234 went Top Forty, the Social's consistently ahead-of-the-curve booking policy gave us one last chance to experience Leslie Feist in a suitably intimate setting. A fine performance, with no lingering traces of dinner-party-friendly Hipster Norah Jones-isms (if that's even such a bad thing in the first place).

7. Rachel Unthank & the Winterset, The Maze, November
Jollier, jokier and less austere than the second album might have suggested, but with none of their essential impact diluted along the way. If English folk is not your bag, then be prepared for a serious re-think.

8. Get Cape Wear Cape Fly / Kate Nash, Trent University, January
On the strength of this show, I had Mister Cape pegged as a major star by the summer, and Ms Nash as a Lily Allen wannabe who would sink without trace. What unfathomably strange creatures the British public can be...

9. Black Mountain / Evil Hawk, Rescue Rooms, December
Glistening Irridescent Shards Of Pure Unfettered Sound Alert! Crack open the Thesaurus, Mabel, this is a good 'un! Black Mountain's second album "drops" in 2008, and I for one shall be around to catch it when it falls.

10. Young Knives / Ungdomskulen / The Housewives, Rescue Rooms, October
OK, so the Young Knives were no more than OK - but the Norwegian prog-trash trio Ungdomskulen were a revelation, and duly pick up the Support Act Of The Year award.

11. Low, Rescue Rooms, April
One of those rare gigs where the band plays quiet, and everyone concentrates (see also Feist above). Rescue Rooms, I commend you. A truly spell-binding show.

12. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Royal Centre, November
When it comes to the restoration of his muse to 2000-era Heartbreaker levels, the number of false dawns has been second only to Prince - but now, with his demons firmly dispelled, Ryan's time could well have come at last. (That was a shit sentence, but I'm on me hols and temporarily past caring.)

13. John Martyn, Royal Centre, May
A grim start to be sure, but everything snapped into focus for the classic Solid Air album, which was played in full. What began as a dithery mumble ended as a passionate roar.

14. Euros Childs / Das Wanderlust, Social, September
Understated, self-effacing, alternately reflective and whimsical, effortlessly charming and melodically acute... no, it's not Kevin Ayers, but Euros could be shaping up as his spiritual heir.

15. Joan Baez, Royal Centre, March
But I thought she was all pious and preachy? Volte-face of the year, as I finally twig just what makes La Baez one of the greats.

16. Donny Osmond, Royal Centre, October
The second of three occasions (the others being Jason Donovan and the Arcade Fire's Win Butler) when a performer leapt off the stage and lurched determinedly through the audience, only to end up within touching distance of me. (My sister: "I've pulled Donny Osmond!") What strange, unearthly magnetism do I possess, that compels these men to throw themselves at me?

17. Andy Williams, Royal Centre, July
The last ever show of his last ever tour, we were told. And with his show-stopping rendition of Macarthur Park, one hell of a way to bow out.

18. Fionn Regan, Social, October
I didn't see this one coming at all. A quiet revelation, of the folk-meets-alt-country variety.

19. Cocorosie / Tez, Trent University, June
The French human beat-boxer Tez took the art to a whole new level, while Cocorosie turned their set around from smug aloofness to captivating brilliance.

20. Smokey Robinson, Royal Centre, July
Worth it for The Tracks Of My Tears alone, and with enough living-legend soulfulness to balance out the showbiz schmaltz (and the cheesy Miss Anglia Television 1978 backing dancers).

21. Palladium, Social, October
"They'll be back and they'll be big", I said. Fashion victim stylings tempered by incongruously musicianly "chops" and some magnificently flashy Axe Hero diddling 'n widdling.

22. Nuru Kane & Bayefall Gnawa, Lakeside, April
Playing for nearly three hours, Nuru Kane melded smoky desert blues, trance-like Moroccan "gnawa", hypnotic Afrobeat, and a rhythmic propulsion which got even this predominantly academic arts-centre crowd on their feet and grooving.

23. From The Jam, Rock City, December

24. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Rock City, January
OK, so he lost it after the first hour - but what a magnificent first hour, all the same.

25. Maria McKee, Rescue Rooms, May
Just plain enjoyable, basically. Smiles all round.

26. Erasure / Onetwo, Royal Centre, September
Being on the front row was a bit weird, but MY GOD did I make the most of it. Knocked the arty-but-dull Pet Shop Boys show into a cocked hat, that's for sure.

27. Tinariwen, Leicester De Montfort, May
More than good enough for me to forgive the repeated interview no-shows (of which there were several, CSS I'm looking at YOU).

28. Diana Ross, Arena, May
A bit all-over-the-place, but endearingly so - and when she hit it, she HIT it. The Boss! Ain't No Mountain High Enough! ShizafookinSTAR! I can die happy!

29. Alabama Three, London Astoria, October
Not just a gig, but a mini-blogmeet to boot, as I twinkled my toes off down the front with Zoe and the Twat. ShizafookinSTAR! Et cetera, et cetera!

30. Foals, Rescue Rooms, October
Once you factored out the Trendy Wanker seen-em-on-Skins faction, who were more bothered with being seen in the right place than actually paying attention (and believe me, that took some doing), what we were left with was a rather promising little band. Impossible to tell whether the recordings will match the intensity of the live shows, but I'll be keeping an optimistic ear out.

And these were the duds:

53. Manu Chao, Rock City, November
The only show this year that I walked out of - although to be fair, it was also one of the most deliriously ecstatic audiences that I've ever witnessed at Rock City, in 27 years of going there. God knows what they saw in him, but there you go.

54. The Sugababes, Arena, April
Characterised above all else by the total and utter lack of rapport between the three women on stage, each of whom performed in their own little bubble of disinterested disconnection.

55. The Verve, Arena, December
WHADDA FAKKIN LIBERTY! Sloppy, under-rehearsed, shit sound, duff vocals, bad attitude both onstage and off.

56. Bucks Fizz / Brotherhood Of Man, Royal Centre, June
Until you have seen the Brotherhood Of Man perform a "Seventies Medley" which includes the likes of Shang-A-Lang, My Ding-A-Ling and Remember You're A Womble, you don't know the meaning of true suffering.

57. The X Factor Live, Arena, February
Leona was fine, the Macdonald Brothers were tolerably entertaining... and the rest was desperate, exploitative, bargain basement shite, even down to the taped backing vocals and the pointless, milk-em-dry, text message competition.

58. Siobhan Donaghy, London Popstarz, June
Painfully off-key, lousy sound mix, zero charisma, and no-one even bothered to get rid of the software error message on the DVD backdrop. At least I could enjoy hating the X Factor show, but this was just dismal and depressing.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

The Ken Dodd Happiness Show -- A Survivor's Diary.

Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Thursday December 27. A marathon show deserved a marathon review, basically. Besides, all of that furious scribbling helped keep me awake...

Ken Dodd, November 2005

(Photo of Ken Dodd taken in November 2005 by pixieclaire001)

19:06. Brandishing his trademark tickling sticks, Ken Dodd comes bounding onto the stage, greeting us with a cheery "Ey-up!" This week marks his fiftieth anniversary in show business, we are soon told. This is a little strange, as Dodd's first ever professional engagement was actually in 1954 -- at the old Empire Theatre, where the Royal Concert Hall now stands. But this is no time to sweat the details.

19.13. Ken has long been known for his marathon shows, and he wastes no time in taunting us with the prospect of being stuck in our seats until the small hours. "Don't worry about the buses and taxis -- there's always the milk floats!", he quips, milking our unease for maximum laughs.

19.25. Noting the average age of his audience (which is somewhere well in advance of sixty, despite a sprinkling of younger faces), Ken promises us two intervals: "One for lager, and one for Complan". We should be so lucky...

19:47. The keyboardist has yet to arrive, having been held up on the A50. ("Don't worry, we'll add it on to the end of the show.") The drummer is holding his own, though -- even prompting his boss on a couple of occasions, when the odd word slips his memory. Unable to take his scheduled musical breaks, Dodd is having to busk it a bit, making the show up as he goes along -- and although he's mostly doing OK, the strain is starting to show. Last month, Dodd turned eighty. Is the onset of old age finally starting to get to him?

20:05. Finally the keyboardist arrives, the stage hands setting up the equipment around him. With music on the agenda at last, Dodd leaves the stage, and a group of children perform a selection of Christmas carols.

20:14. After a very short burst of comedy, Dodd departs once more, leaving the same children to perform a singalong "wartime" medley. Without much in the way of audience participation, it all falls rather flat -- and with the appearance of his long-term partner Anne Jones, who performs a seemingly endless series of well-worn chestnuts, the evening sinks further still. So Ken gets a twenty-five minute break, even if we don't? You can feel the restlessness building in the aisles.

20:45. He's back, and things aren't going too well. "It's an educational show. When you get out of here tonight, you'll go: well, that's taught me a lesson." My companion rolls his eyes knowingly.

20:53. "There's a special name for what I'm doing now: struggling." You said it, Ken. His delivery is faltering -- not helped by a troublesome and rather fruity cough -- and the laughs simply aren't coming. He's trying to win us back, but it's an uphill struggle. When's the interval, anyway?

21:10. Ken is swapping banter with a poker-faced French maid of advanced years, who speaks with a local accent. The skit goes well enough, but there are still an awful lot of ad-libbed cracks about how quiet we all are. He even starts to take his frustrations out on the venue, "a Portakabin with a hint of mock-Wimpey".

21:19. Ye Gods, it's the Diddymen! We grin and bear it. Spirit of the Blitz, and all that.

21:32. Ken is threatening to cancel the interval and lock the gents' toilets. Frankly, I wouldn't put it past him. There's madness in those eyes tonight.

21:39. A musical tribute to the old masters of 20th century comedy -- Cooper, Chaplin, Askey, Groucho Marx, Max Wall and all the rest of them -- is marred by fluffed lines and ragged delivery. All around the auditorium, legs are being crossed just that little bit more tightly.

22:00. Nearly three hours in, the long awaited interval arrives. We stumble around the surprisingly uncrowded bar area, un-numbing our backsides and generally feeling a little shell-shocked. The beers might not be shifting, but the coffee stand is doing a brisk trade.

22:20. We're back in our seats, along with around 90% of the audience from the first half. The house lights go down, and on comes... a magic act! My companion and I look at each other aghast. Is this how they reward our loyalty? There is a routine with a disappearing lady, which I can't work out -- and a routine with swords and a cabinet, which I work out in seconds.

22:37. The great man is back -- and this time, he's brought a Thermos flask and sandwiches. "Most of you have been reported missing by now", he cries, before engaging various members of the front two rows in conversation.

22:45. "How many children have you got, missus?" It turns out that the lady in question has eight of them. He wasn't expecting this, and seems to dither for a while -- before coming back quite brilliantly. ("It's a good job you sewed that hole up in your husband's pyjamas. Well, you know what they say: a stitch in time saves nine!") The gag brings the house down. Hey, this is more like it.

22:54. There is something of a mini-exodus, as people rush off to catch their last buses, or get out of the car parks before closing time. Undeterred, Dodd is in the middle of a bizarre operatic routine about haddock. It's fast and wordy, and requires split-second timing. To our delight, the old boy pulls it off without a single hitch, to sustained applause. That interval seems to have done all of us the power of good...

23:10. The material is rather more "adult" in nature by now -- but it's merely risqué, and far from smutty. As the subject matter shifts from love-making to hospitals, so the material gets ever more considered and clever, playing to our intellects rather than going for endless quick-fire gags. We're into late night, after-hours territory, and the belly laughs are rolling around the room. Behind me, one lady has almost completely lost it, roaring hysterically at every other word. Next to me, my companion is dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. Four hours in, and the octogenarian comedy legend is in peak form at last. Perhaps the people who left during the interval had got things the wrong way around -- instead of leaving early, they should have arrived late.

23:25. Dickie Mint, the ever-popular ventriloquist's doll, is sporting a guardsman's uniform tonight. Some of his routine is still fresh in our memories from BBC2's Christmas Eve "Ken Dodd Night" -- but plenty of the gags are new, and no-one really minds. With all the quick-fire word-play between Dodd and his cheeky dummy, the famous "no bad language" rule comes very close to being broken -- but in the end, our blushes are spared.

23:40. In between quips ("You know you're entitled to an attendance allowance for staying here?") Ken is reading out dedications from members of the audience. ("We're one step away from turning into sheltered accommodation!") The banter is flowing freely between the performer and the front two rows. The laughs are still rolling, and strange as it might sound, we feel like we could happily stay here all night. Two hours earlier, we couldn't wait for the interval. Now we don't want to leave.

23:55. Looking and sounding twenty years younger than the man who first stepped onto the stage, Dodd is working his way through some of his old hits -- Love Is Like A Violin, Tears -- and working in the odd Johnny Cash impersonation along the way. A final semi-operatic skit sees him in fine voice, every inch the ageless master of his craft, the last member of the music hall generation still standing. We shall never see his like again.

00:06. Bang on the five hour mark, an unashamedly sentimental Absent Friends brings the night to a close. Suddenly, Ken sounds older and frailer again, as he reluctantly ekes out his final moments on stage, not yet quite ready to step back into the shadows.

00:09. A quick burst of his signature tune Happiness, and it is all over. We feel as if we have just scaled the comedy equivalent of the North Face of the Eiger. He'll probably be back this time next year, just as he has been almost every year since 1954. Good old Ken. For many of his ever-loyal audience, the holday season just wouldn't be the same without him.

(First published on the Nottingham Evening Post's website.)

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Rihanna - Nottingham Arena, Thursday December 20.

After the disappointment of her cancelled show on Saturday December 10th, it was a relief to see Rihanna return to Nottingham in full health, for the very last date of her Good Girl Gone Bad tour. However, for anyone hoping to see Ciara, who had been advertised as the main support act, a further disappointment was in store. After the winners of this year’s Dance X contest had finished strutting their stuff, we were left waiting for a full hour before the show continued, with no apology or explanation given for the R&B starlet’s disappearance. The situation had also caught the Arena’s staff by surprise, and not even your reporter’s determined enquiries could draw any further information.

The good-natured crowd took it all in their stride, greeting Rihanna with ear-splitting squeals of delight. Accompanied by four dancers, two singers and a four-piece band, she launched into a thumping version of Pon De Replay, working the stage with a broad, happy smile.

In contrast to the imperious, untouchable likes of Beyoncé Knowles, there was nothing of the diva or the control freak about this 19 year old Barbados girl. “I'd like to think that I'm pretty normal”, she told us during the ballad Question Existing, and this unaffected, girl-next-door attitude formed a key part of her appeal. This being the final show of the year, her backing dancers took every opportunity going to prank her, with their daft wigs, silly costumes and ludicrous dance routines reducing her to giggles on several occasions. With all the relaxed, affectionate, end-of-term silliness on display, you sensed that Rihanna ran a happy ship.

However, none of this could really excuse the shortness of the performance, which ran to just under an hour and a quarter, a couple of songs and costume changes having been dropped from the usual running order. This wouldn’t have mattered so much if we had been treated to the sort of full-on theatrical spectacle that might have been expected from a star of Rihanna’s calibre, but there was something a little lacking in the basic staging, the fairly ordinary choreography – and even in the singer’s tacky PVC costumes, which looked as if they had been picked up from the nearest Ann Summers.

That said, there was nothing cut-price about Rihanna’s extraordinary vocal prowess, which peaked during the show’s ballad section with flawless renditions of Good Girl Gone Bad, Hate That I Love You and Unfaithful. These are her finest songs, all of which deal with different aspects of failing or dysfunctional relationships, and she sang them with subtlety, poise and grace, making it all look so easy.

Following this artistic highlight, the high-octane dance numbers which closed the main set came as a joyful release of energy – particularly the pounding club track Don’t Stop The Music, which sent the younger elements of the audience giddy with excitement.

The show could only close with one song. Umbrella has not only been 2007’s biggest selling single, but it has also been the year’s defining, inescapable anthem. It was therefore only right and proper that Nottingham’s final Arena show before Christmas should end on such a collective high, as dozens of umbrellas were hoisted all over the auditorium for what felt like an endless extended remix (it actually ran for ten minutes).

The night finished with Rihanna and her entire crew attacking each other with snow guns and generally goofing around, as Umbrella’s backing track chundered on and on. Sure, it was a little self-indulgent – but it was rather heart-warming as well.

Set list:
Pon De Replay
Break It Off
Let Me
Breakin’ Dishes
Kisses Don’t Lie
Good Girl Gone Bad
Hate That I Love You
Sell Me Candy
Don’t Stop The Music
Push Up On Me
Shut Up And Drive
Question Existing

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Hard-Fi / The Rumble Strips -- Nottingham Arena, Thursday December 13.

Hailing from Tavistock in Devon, The Rumble Strips scored their big break in May, as the top-billed act on the NME/Topman package tour. Their music owed a clear debt to Dexys Midnight Runners, particularly on the numbers where two band members doubled up as a brass section. Last March's nearly-hit Alarm Clock stood out from the pack, with its punchy, drum-heavy arrangement. Unfortunately, the song which followed it opened almost identically -- as did the next one. By the end of their sprightly, genial, but ultimately undemanding half-hour set, you sensed that they had used up their still limited box of tricks.

For anyone who had endured The Verve's atrocious sound mix two nights earlier, it was a relief to hear Hard-Fi sounding comparatively crisp and clear, at least once some early technical problems had been resolved. ("Kai's bass has been taken out the back and shot", muttered singer Richard Archer.) They had obviously worked hard to prepare for their biggest tour to date, applying careful thought to the lighting and visuals. Opening number Middle Eastern Holiday was accompanied by some particularly inventive video backdrops, mixing vintage arcade games, military footage and pop-art imagery to compelling effect.

In the course of their eighteen song, ninety minute set, the Staines boys performed most of their debut album Stars of CCTV, and all but one song from its follow-up, Once Upon A Time In The West (the heavily orchestrated Watch Me Fall Apart being an understandable omission). The more rousing newer numbers fared best of all, with Can't Get Along (Without You) coming as an early highlight. A mariachi-style trumpet appeared for the intro of forthcoming single I Shall Overcome, and Archer whipped out his trusty melodica for older tracks such as Better Do Better.

Hard-Fi's essentially down-to-earth nature forms a central part of their appeal. These are no untouchable superstars, but regular blokes from the suburbs who articulate the everyday concerns of their audience. However, in order to transfer their act from sweaty rock venues to 10,000 capacity arenas, they still need to raise their game, own the stage, and reach out to everyone in the hall, not just the heaving moshers down the front.

To his credit, Archer tried his best to connect. Nevertheless, as the singer's calls for mass participation grew more frequent and pleading, you sensed that he was trying a little too hard. Although an energetic and industrious front man, he lacked natural authority. "I've been reading my Idiot's Guide to Arena Rock", he quipped, cheerfully poking fun at his shortcomings, but also drawing attention to a hurdle that has yet to be overcome.

The band hit their stride with a wonderfully smooth, controlled Tonight, following it with the swaggering, anthemic Suburban Knights. At this point, they almost had the night in their pockets. Sadly, a woefully scrappy Hard To Beat threw away these gains in an instant, closing the main set on an awkward downer. Compared to their confident start -- and especially compared to their superb 2005 show at Rock City -- the encore came as something of an anti-climax.

Set List:
Middle Eastern Holiday
I Close My Eyes
Tied Up Too Tight
Can't Get Along
Better Do Better
I Shall Overcome
Help Me Please
Little Angel
Cash Machine
We Need Love
You And Me
Suburban Knights
Hard To Beat
The King
Stars Of CCTV
Living For The Weekend

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Verve - Nottingham Arena, Tuesday December 12th

The Verve, Nottingham Arena

(Photo of The Verve at Nottingham Arena taken by Simon Collinson)

Following considerable press hype and a couple of hits, seven–piece Sheffield band Reverend and the Makers stepped up to the demands of an arena gig as if it were their natural habitat. Mentored by the veteran Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke, and with Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys as a close friend and kindred spirit, lanky frontman Jon McClure, aka The Reverend, won over the initially cautious crowd with his acerbic portraits of modern city life. His band drew inspiration from anthemic 1990s indie of the Stone Roses/Oasis variety, mixing it up with funky electronics in an agreeable and promising fashion.

Eight years after splitting, The Verve returned to the live stage in early November, with an ecstatically received run of dates in medium-sized venues. Encouraged by the universally positive reaction, they swiftly arranged a full-blown arena tour, of which last night’s show was the first.

With his outsized shades and newly bleached crop, Richard Ashcroft had the look of 1973-era Lou Reed about him, but everything else about his performance style – aloof, arrogant and intense, with more than a touch of the messianic – remained unchanged. Although Verve material had continued to feature in his solo shows, guitarist Nick McCabe’s absence had always been keenly felt, and so expectations were understandably high.

The band opened with the 1995 single This Is Music, before launching into instant crowd-pleaser Sonnet, with its distinctive guitar chops that still bring Spandau Ballet’s True rather unfortunately to mind. The set continued in mid-paced, somewhat sombre mode, mixing material from their two lesser known early albums with generous chunks from the multi-million selling classic that the vast bulk of the audience had come to hear, Urban Hymns.

Although a handful of new songs were premiered on the November tour, none of them surfaced during last night’s show – but instead of seizing the opportunity to whip up a storm, the band held back, losing themselves in ponderous sludge and unfocussed guitar jams. Sure, a few arms-aloft diehards down the front were clearly having the time of their lives, but most of the arena merely looked on with polite half-smiles, waiting for things to catch fire.

Ashcroft’s vocals first faltered during a lacklustre On Your Own, revealing an awkward off-key croakiness. Although he mostly managed to pull them back, problems recurred during History, which even drew an apology. (“I messed it up a bit folks, but that’s live music.”)

When The Drugs Don’t Work was greeted by a sea of phone screens rather than the rapt attention that might have been expected, it was a sign of how badly things had sagged. Well, you’ve got to make your own entertainment somehow. Closing the main set, Come On displayed the raucous energy and attack which we had been missing, but it was too little, too late.

Only the final encore of Bittersweet Symphony brought the arena’s seated sections to their feet, as they raised cheers for what was essentially an extended tape loop accompanied by drums and whooshy effects pedals. Perhaps wisely, Ashcroft turned his mike towards the crowd for the final verse.

The Verve promised transcendence, but they delivered mediocrity. A disappointing night.

Set list:
This Is Music
Life’s An Ocean
Space And Time
Weeping Willow
On Your Own
Already There
The Rolling People
Velvet Morning
Let The Damage Begin
The Drugs Don’t Work
Come On
Lucky Man
Bittersweet Symphony

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Black Mountain – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday December 6.

Some performances are easy to capture in words, while others affect your senses and emotions in a way which goes beyond language. The Vancouver based rock band Black Mountain belong firmly in the latter category. Although lacking any obvious crowd-pleasing showmanship, the five band members radiated a quiet, studious intensity which, in a roundabout sort of way, gave them more genuine stage presence than your average NME-sanctioned posturing ninnies.

The music was rooted in classic late 1960s rock of the heavy, hairy variety, with distinct echoes of The Doors, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix – but rather than mining a straightforward retro seam, it had been filtered through the latter-day psychedelia of bands such as Ride, Spiritualized and the Stone Roses. Dense, swirling and intoxicating, it invited to you close your eyes and lose yourself in its epic sweep. (More pretentious publications than this one might use phrases such as “tonal landscapes” and “cathedrals of sound”, but Evening Post readers are sensible enough to see through that sort of guff.)

While material from the band’s forthcoming second album was well received, the loudest cheers were reserved for the killer riffing of Don’t Run Our Hearts Around, from their fine 2005 debut.

(Photograph of Black Mountain in Utrecht on December 2nd 2007 taken by stephanchrk, and reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution licence.)

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

From The Jam – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday December 4.

For anyone who witnessed From The Jam’s triumphant performance at the Rescue Rooms in May, last night came with dangerously high expectations. Could original members Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, along with vocalist Russell Hastings and second guitarist Dave Moore, rekindle the magic once again, or was that springtime gig a unrepeatable fluke?

This time round, instead of blasting us with an opening salvo of classics, the band bravely eased us in with a couple of album tracks. For the first hour or so, they explored the best of their back catalogue, with an emphasis on the golden 1978-80 mid-period. Rather than being milked for easy nostalgia points, we were reminded that The Jam were always firmly about the music.

As the set progressed, the energy levels increased. B-sides such as The Butterfly Collector and So Sad About Us gave way to the big crowd pleasers: a punchy A-Bomb In Wardour Street, a razor-sharp Start, and the ever-resonant Strange Town. Later and lesser hits were conspicuous by their absence.

By the time we reached The Eton Rifles and Going Underground, Rock City was on fire, as veterans relived their glory days and curious younger admirers got to see what the fuss was all about. Passionately and precisely delivered by Hastings, Paul Weller’s extraordinarily articulate lyrics retained all of their righteous power.

If your idea of a rock anthem extends no further than “Ruby-Ruby-Ruby-Ruby”, then last night was proof positive that, for some of us at least, The Jam will always rule supreme.

(Photographs of Russell Hastings and Bruce Foxton taken on May 12 2007 by Ed Fielding, and reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution licence.)

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset – The Maze, Nottingham, Sunday November 25.

Anyone who still dismisses folk music as a redundant art-form – cosy, twee, stuck in the past – might have their pre-conceptions challenged by Northumbrian singer Rachel Unthank, her younger sister Becky, pianist Belinda O’Hooley and fiddle player Niopha Keegan. Although the Winterset’s roots are in traditional folk, they are not afraid to take influences from more contemporary sources, including sparse, spine-tingling covers of Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song and Antony and the Johnsons’ For Today I Am A Boy.

Combining darkness and joy to sublime effect, the delicacy and grace of the music was offset by warm, self-deprecating comic banter between the performers, and a musical variety which encompassed ukuleles, clog dancing, and impromptu renditions of Christmas classics.

Material from debut album Cruel Sister kept the traditionalists happy, while its more dramatic, boundary-pushing follow-up The Bairns pointed the way forward – both for the Winterset, and indeed for English folk music in general.

(Photograph of Rachel Unthank at the 2007 Cambridge Folk Festival taken by Frank Bach Jensen, and reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution licence.)

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Cardiacs – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday November 15.

(This review appears in today's Nottingham Evening Post.)

Cardiacs have been described as “prog-punk”. It’s an imperfect description, but perhaps as close as you’ll get. Their music is complex and intense, combining the disciplined intricacy of progressive rock with the all-out attack of 1977-era punk – but perhaps their true spiritual forefathers are mavericks such as Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Remarkably, they have been together for thirty years, operating right outside the mainstream, and inhabiting their own singular musical universe.

Brothers Tim and Jim Smith lead the band, resembling Michael Douglas in Falling Down and Uncle Fester from The Addams Family respectively. They were accompanied by guitarist Kavus Torabi (Simon Amstell fed through a distorted lens) and two impassive female singers in matching pinnies. Keyboards were audible throughout, even though none were on stage. This merely added to the mystique. (*)

Faced with such impossible rhythms, the mosh pit responded with precise stop-start timing. Like the band, they too had mastered the art of controlled chaos.

As I said on Twitter last night: "Best. Band. Ever." But as I added on Twitter, two wearying hours later: "Toughest. Review. Ever." It always the ones that come out of nowhere and knock you sideways that are the trickiest to nail, as you vainly try to marshall your swirling emotions. (I had the same trouble with Secret Machines last year.) Whereas with the gigs you hate (Manu Chao, The X Factor), the write-up just flies off the page. Evidently, anger must be a great motivator.

As for the mighty Cardiacs: I am more than a little stunned that it has taken a full thirty years to stumble across their extraordinary music. After the show, I asked the nice lady on the merchandising stall to suggest a good place to start. After prolonged rummaging, she selected On Land And In The Sea (1989) for me; an album which contains one of last night's highlights, the epic "The Everso Closely Guarded Line", as well as promisingly titled tracks such as "The Stench Of Honey" and "The Duck And Roger The Horse". I think this could be the start of something.

Cardiacs play the London Astoria tonight, followed by dates next week in Sheffield, Stoke, Manchester and Portsmouth. Really, you should go.

(*) Apparently the keyboards were pre-recorded. Quite how you play music that thrashy and energetic, while still keeping perfect time with a backing tape, completely defeats me.

Postscript: In order to attend last night's gig, I turned down not one but two invitations to prestigious and glittering social functions: the opening party for Nottingham's newest casino (in the old Co-op building on Parliament Street), and the opening party for Nottingham's newest cosmetic surgery (champagne, canapes, complimentary Botox). It's a glamorous old life, being a stringer for regional print media!

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Monday November 12.

Ryan Adams, Houston, October 18 2007
(photo taken by mjecker)

Almost exactly seven years since his British live debut at The Maze, Ryan Adams returned for his fifth Nottingham show, backed once more by the four-piece Cardinals. Backlit and shrouded in mist, the players cut shadowy, enigmatic figures, with the formerly garrulous Adams struggling – and mostly succeeding – to maintain an equally enigmatic silence. (“We shouldn’t talk; we might break up.”)

Once a workable balance had been struck between the rock-based material and the comfortable sit-down surroundings, the band delivered a fine, musicianly two-hour performance. The mostly languid, nocturnal mood was bolstered by Jon Graboff’s atmospheric pedal steel, and punctured by occasional wig-outs such as the raucous "Shakedown on 9th Street", and the experimental free-form jam which closed the main set.

Having conquered the addictions which threatened to derail his career, Adams has enjoyed renewed success with this year’s Easy Tiger. Album opener "Goodnight Rose" was a particular highlight, successfully blending influences from Roy Orbison to the Grateful Dead.

Initially swapping between guitar and piano, Adams gave up on the latter halfway through: although easy to play in his “wasted” days, he now finds it too “mathematical”. Set against such a welcome return to form, this was a small sacrifice indeed.

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Manu Chao, Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday November 7th.

If you’ve ever hung out in a backpacker bar in Koh Samui on your gap year, necking cheap sangria, smoking roll-ups and discussing world politics, then Manu Chao’s music will need no introduction. As the spiritual heir to the late Joe Strummer, he is one of the few remaining international performers who still dares to wear his ideology on his sleeve – although with his frizzy hair, thick scarlet bandanna and lurid green shirt slashed to the navel, he owes his look more to Keith Richards.

A massive star in continental Europe, Manu is much less well known in the UK. Consequently, relatively intimate venues such as Rock City must be a welcome novelty for him and his band. Their delighted looks throughout last night’s marathon set said it all, their enthusiasm more than matched by the ecstatic crowd reaction.

That said, the band stuck to a rigid formula, alternating between loping reggae and frantic, breakneck ska-punk, laced with Latin overtones. There were more “mi corazons” than you could shake a stick at, interspersed with the sort of cod-Jamaican “ma-yo-yo-yo” chanting that Sting popularised a generation ago. For the uninitiated, the formula swiftly wore thin. For the majority, those blissful backpacking memories were skilfully evoked.

This review first appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. I tried to be fair, as I've rarely - if ever - seen a more enthusiastic crowd at Rock City, in 27 years of going there. So maybe it was the incipient man-flu, blunting my edge. I doubt it though. Bascially, I got the point after the first ten minutes, before becoming increasingly bored and restless. How I wish I'd followed my gut instinct, and joined Tina at the Social for Okkervil River...

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Young Knives / Ungdomskulen – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Monday October 29.

This review, an edited version of which originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post, came out sounding rather more lukewarm than the band deserved. (I was only trying to be helpful!) For a more upbeat assessment, have a look at SwissToni's review, which is joyously unburdened by the demands of a) a word count and b) an avoidance of the first person.

Young Knives, Oxford, September 23 2007

It’s not often that the support threatens to blow the headliners off stage, but even the Young Knives had to admit that Ungdomskulen, an extraordinary prog-trash trio from Norway, were a tough act to follow. (“You pick the support act, and they turn out to be the best band in the world.”) Their lengthy, complex, unpredictable numbers were dominated by a truly phenomenal drummer, whose flashy yet intensely rhythmic playing was a wonder to behold.

Neatly turned out in sober suits and comfortable shoes, The Young Knives looked more like mild-mannered moonlighting accountants than aspirant rock stars. With no new album to promote, they bravely (and almost apologetically) focused on unreleased material, none of which marked a radical departure from the Mercury nominated Voices of Animals and Men. Although politely received, this lack of familiarity meant that the crowd were slow to warm up, the turning point coming with reliable old favourite The Decision.

Of the new songs, the insistently catchy Turn Tail had “hit” written all over it – much more so than the dangerously derivative future single Up All Night, which took its title from Razorlight, its chorus from Rocket From The Crypt, and its “woh-oh-oh” chanting from The Futureheads.

Photo taken in Chicago in September 2007 by jamesgrayking, and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fionn Regan – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Monday October 22.

(yadda yadda yadda Nottingham Evening Post, you know the score by now)

Fionn Regan, Chicago, September 24 2007

Boosted by the recent Mercury Prize nomination for his debut album The End Of History, Irish singer-songwriter Fionn Regan faced a curious and respectful capacity crowd, at the start of his UK tour.

Aided by a four-piece band, the fifty-minute show kicked off in surprisingly muscular fashion, before quietening for an extended run of sparse, intense, folk-meets-alt-country numbers whose poetic, deeply personal lyrics defied instant analysis. From then on, the band had little to do other than add the subtlest of backings to Regan’s reflective, accusing, somewhat embittered balladry.

Stylistically and lyrically, the songs leant towards America, bearing distinct vocal similarities to Ryan Adams’ early solo work. Perhaps the best received song was the excellent Put The Penny In The Slot, which namechecked the authors Paul Auster and Saul Bellow.

Saving the single Be Good Or Be Gone until last, Regan unplugged his guitar and delivered the song without amplification. It was a brave conclusion to a highly promising set.

Photo taken in Chicago in September 2007 by Jeremy Farmer, and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Donny Osmond – Royal Concert Hall, Thursday October 18.

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

There comes a point in every teen idol’s career where the hits dry up and the fans drift away, leaving the former idol with some tough choices. It’s a testing time, and many – if not most – never quite recover. Donny Osmond, on the other hand, is one of the great survivors. As last night’s show demonstrated, he has evolved into a seasoned, natural performer who strikes just the right balance between unashamed nostalgia and age-appropriate maturity.

Anyone expecting a syrupy schlock-fest was in for a surprise, as Donny based much of the two-hour set around his most recent album, an intelligently selected array of classic 1970s covers. Highlights included the funky opener Will It Go Round In Circles, a polished How Long, and the astonishing show-stopper Sometimes When We Touch, whose impassioned sincerity held the audience spellbound. (1)

But of course, with most of the overwhelmingly female audience eager to roll back the years, those old teenybop hits had to be aired. Puppy Love was played for laughs (“just because we’re… pushing fifty!”) (2), One Bad Apple was preceded by a wicked Michael Jackson impersonation (3), and The Twelfth Of Never was seemingly selected from an onstage iPod.

The hysteria peaked when Donny left the stage, strode right through the stalls by perching on seat backs (4), and then emerged at the front of both upper tiers, singing all the while. Thirty-five years ago, he would have been torn to pieces. Judging by his relaxed smile, he no longer misses those days at all.

(Photo of Mister O serenading the circle by my darling sister.)

(1) I can see you frowning in disbelief from here, you know. But seriously, I mean it: D.O's rendition of this particular song ranks as one of the most moving performances I have seen all year. There's no way of knowing it, of course, but I suspect that he's lived every word. During the earlier part of the show, we had been comparing Donny to Cliff Richard (5) - but here was where the two performers diverged. Cliff could never have sung this song in this way.

(2) "Every artist eventually gets a signature song. Frank Sinatra had My Way. Andy Williams has Moon River. And I get... Puppy Love." [pulls "gee, thanks for that" face]

(3) ...and an interesting piece of trivia: One Bad Apple had originally been written for the Jackson Five (who rejected it in favour of ABC), whereas Michael Jackson's Ben was originally written for Donny Osmond, and rejected in favour of Puppy Love. ("But hey, I'd rather sing about a puppy than a rat...")

(4) ...steering a straight course right down the middle of the stalls, until he got to about two rows in front of us. At which point, he suddenly angled off and headed straight for my sister, who was obliged - obliged! - to grasp his hand and pull him across the gap between the seats. "I pulled Donny Osmond!", she gasped. "You cannot imagine the number of strings I pulled in order to make that happen", I joshed.

(5) Apart from a brief but worrying moment at the start of the second half, when D.O. re-appeared in a capacious blouson jacket with the collar turned up, the thick belt of his jeans spelling out DEMAND DEMOCRACY in big sparkly letters, performing his AOR-tinged 1988 comeback hit "Soldier of Love" in the sort of galumphing messianic style which evoked memories of David Hasselhoff at the Berlin Wall a year later, single-handedly saving the world from the Red Peril. But the moment passed quickly enough...

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Palladium – Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Monday October 15.

(This review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Already the darlings of the London fashionista set – a dubious honour if ever there was one – Palladium don’t yet mean much outside the capital, as last night’s sparse turnout demonstrated. On the strength of their short but superb set, that looks set to change very soon.

Drawing influences from late 1970s and early 1980s soft-rock and power-pop, the band could easily have fallen through the trap-door marked “ironic”. Thankfully, what could have come across as fey, arch and mannered was beefed up by startlingly fine musicianship, a strong sense of almost stadium-rock dynamics, and an irrepressibly joyful energy and attack.

His skinny frame squeezed into skin-tight silver drainpipes, vocalist Peter Pepper radiated an androgynous, other-wordly glamour that marked him out as a pop star in waiting. Meanwhile, curly-haired “axe hero” wannabe Rostas Fez all but stole the show with his flashy, fluid solos.

They’ll be back, and they’ll be big.

(Photos by MissMish, who thought that she was going to see another band entirely - although she ended up enjoying herself none the less.)

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Richmond Fontaine – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Tuesday October 9th.

(This review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Richmond Fontaine @ Music Fest North West 2007

Having won rave reviews in magazines such as Uncut and Mojo for their understated, literate brand of alternative country, Oregon four-piece Richmond Fontaine have been steadily building a solid following in the UK, buoyed up by frequent visits to these shores. Now augmented by a fifth member, pedal steel guitarist Paul Brainard (who also doubles up on trumpet), the band’s latest tour sees them graduating to slightly larger venues.

Last night at the Rescue Rooms, opinions divided as to whether the intimacy of their previous shows had been diluted – a situation that wasn’t helped by the muddy amplification of affable front man Willy Vlautin’s capable, if undemonstrative, vocals. For a band whose narrative-style lyrics are such a cornerstone of their appeal, this worked significantly against them. That said, older tracks such as Post To Wire and White Line Fever were well received, and an atmosphere of studious geniality mostly prevailed.

Photo taken by knidonovan, and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Foals – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday October 4.

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

Foals @ Brighton Loop Festival, Aug 18 2007

If you’re much over the age of 23, then you probably won’t have heard of the Oxford five-piece Foals. However, if you’re still in your teens and musically clued-up – a description which fitted most of last night’s capacity crowd – then you’ll most likely have them earmarked as one of the hottest bands of the moment. With a steady trickle of favourable press, a strong online following (over 21,000 MySpace friends and counting) and a support slot on the forthcoming Bloc Party tour, we could well be looking at 2008’s Next Big Thing, on a par with Enter Shikari and the Klaxons from earlier this year.

That said, there was little in the band’s uncompromising hour long set which looked likely to seduce the delicate sensibilities of next year’s Mercury Prize panellists. Foals’ music is dense, rhythmically complex stuff, based more around grooves than songs, and characterised by the sort of choppy, churning punk-funk influences that first re-emerged with The Rapture around five years ago.

Stray oldsters might have recognised elements of the Gang Of Four’s sound, coupled with the sort of indie rock that John Peel was championing around 20 years ago. But then, last night wasn’t meant for them.

Photo taken by fox not centaur, and reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Euros Childs, Nottingham Bodega Social Club, Tuesday October 2nd.

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Since the break-up of Welsh indie-pop stalwarts Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci in Spring 2006, lead singer Euros Childs has thrown himself into his solo career, with a rare vigour that sits at odds with his laidback, dishevelled anti-image. Remarkably, he has managed to release three albums in the space of just eighteen months, whilst also finding time to contribute to the splendid comeback album by his musical hero Kevin Ayers.

The new material is a natural progression from the richly melodic, gently understated pastoralism that defined the Gorkys sound. Alternately romantic, whimsical and wry, the tight, traditionally constructed songs rarely reach out and grab you. Instead, they creep up from behind, charming you by stealth.

Last night’s set focussed on the most recent album The Miracle Inn, with the rollickingly catchy recent single Horse Riding setting the good-natured mood and the older Dawnsio Dros Y Môr keeping the Welsh contingent smiling. While most songs hovered around the three minute mark, the album’s title track – an ambitious sixteen-minute song cycle, during which we were politely asked not to applaud – inevitably stood out as a highlight, as did a crunching version of The Sweet’s (and Tony Blackburn’s) endearingly ridiculous glam-pop oddity Chop Chop.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

I’m From Barcelona – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday September 13.

I'm From Barcelona, Manchester Academy 3, Sep 11 2007

Now that the Polyphonic Spree have faded from view, and the Flaming Lips have graduated to larger venues, I’m From Barcelona are filling the gap for those who want their indie-pop served up with the maximum degree of fun and frolics, theatricality and spectacle.

Reduced from their full line-up of 29 to a skeletal minimum of 13, the touring version of the band aims to turn every show they play into a riotous party for overgrown children. Heroically undaunted by the sparse turn-out, they succeeded in bringing the Rescue Rooms to a state of near delirium.

Within the opening minutes, showers of scarlet confetti were being pelted at the audience, while a sackload of balloons fluttered down from the balcony. Remarkably, fresh supplies of confetti were constantly unleashed throughout the set, covering the venue in thick layers of paper. In preparation for the unlikely anthem We’re From Barcelona (a strange choice considering that the band hails from Jönköping in Sweden), front man Emanuel Lundgren descended from the stage and handed out handfuls of the stuff to the crowd, who obliged him by creating an impromptu ticker-tape parade.

In the midst of all this mayhem, the music almost took second place. Relentlessly upbeat and exultant in tone, what it lacked in emotional range was compensated for by the sheer exuberance of the performance. Clad in black, with sparkling silver braces, home-made fuzzy-felt corsages and glam-rock make-up, the band members led by example, turning their unselfconscious glee into invigorating performance art.

I'm From Barcelona, Manchester Academy 3, Sep 11 2007

The photos which accompany this article were taken at Manchester Academy 3 on September 11th 2007 by Richard Holden, and have been reproduced under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Evan Dando – The Social, Nottingham, Thursday September 6.

(This review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

Fifteen years ago, as the poster boy for the so-called “slacker” generation, Lemonheads front man Evan Dando was riding the crest of a wave. While Kurt Cobain struggled with the pressures of sudden, unasked-for fame, articulating the pain of his generation, Dando’s easy-going brand of instantly likeable grunge-pop brought smiles to those same faces.

Earlier this year, Evan Dando turned forty. On the evidence of last night’s show – the second of two warm-ups for a major support slot with the Jesus and Mary Chain – he wears his age lightly, with a surprisingly healthy demeanour for someone who has indulged in the full range of rock star excesses. His lank, centre-parted hair still falls well below his shoulders. His face still bears that same dazed, doe-eyed, almost innocent expression. His audience may have settled into regular jobs and conventional lifestyles, but Evan remains the eternal slacker, making everything seem effortless and unforced.

Accompanied by regular collaborator Chris Brokaw, Dando strummed his way through a selection which spanned his whole career. Inevitably, old Lemonheads favourites such as Into Your Arms, Big Gay Heart and It’s A Shame About Ray drew the biggest cheers. But on this uncomfortably hot and sticky night, the show never quite took off.

Towards the rear, a brawl broke out. Shortly afterwards, Dando abruptly and ungraciously ended the set, and stalked off. (“I don’t like modern rock shows. I’ve played you nineteen songs. If that’s not enough, see me later.”) It was an awkward end to a pleasant but underwhelming evening.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Erasure / Onetwo – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Tuesday September 4th.

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

Despite his many visits to the Royal Concert Hall over the years, few in last night’s audience appeared to recognise OMD keyboardist Paul Humphreys, now performing with Propaganda’s Claudia Brücken as part of Onetwo. Despite some initial nervousness (1), their brooding, dramatic synthpop was politely received, (2) with the warmest applause reserved for the instantly recognisable Propaganda classic Duel. (3)

Although they have never won the critical acclaim of fellow Eighties survivors the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure have achieved a similar level of success, on their own terms, without ever bending to musical fashions. You can always spot an Erasure song – but you might struggle to guess the decade in which it was recorded.

For this reason, the duo – Andy Bell as enthusiastic as ever on vocals, Vince Clarke as impassive as ever on keyboards – can easily switch between old and new material on stage, without anyone noticing the join. The new songs may not sell quite as well as they used to, but last night’s capacity crowd lapped them up as readily as the old hits. Opening the set, recent single Sunday Girl (no, not the Blondie number) got all three tiers on their feet, where they remained throughout. (4) Not even the Pet Shop Boys managed that, when they played here in June.

But then, Erasure have always been more Pop than Art, and they’ve never been above letting their audience know that they’re having fun too: the three impeccably glamorous backing singers struggled to keep straight faces during Chains Of Love, and Andy performed old favourite Oh L’Amour as a duet with a fake fur stole called “Mint Sauce”. For beneath all the costumes and camp (paint-splattered suits, ridiculous Andy Warhol wigs, army fatigue cocktail dresses), there lies an unassuming generosity of spirit, which welcomes everyone to Erasure’s party. Long may they party on.

Andy Bell + Mint Sauce, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall
(Photo by Sarah)

(1) ...which surprised me, as I was expecting an assured, ice-maidenly, This Is Art Darleenks performance from La Brücken, who seemed somewhat uncomfortable in her own skin. But then the minimal staging didn't help, with the three performers merely plonked in a static row in front of a black curtain. Arty synthpop needs visuals, donthca know?

(2) least, by those who didn't start chattering amongst themselves or slipping out to the bar. Nevertheless, album sales during the interval were brisk; I bought a copy for myself, and they were flying off the shelf at the rate of two or three per minute.

(3) ...whereas my warmest applause was reserved for their cover of The Associates' Club Country, played in memory of the late Billy Mackenzie, who would have been fifty this year.

(4) those of us on the front row could clearly see, if we turned around. For by a remarkable stroke of good fortune, I was approached during the interval by a nice lady (a very nice lady; she'd read my interview and everything!) who asked me whether I was on my own, as she and her husband had a spare ticket for the middle of the front row.

As my pair of perfectly decent press tickets were therefore suddenly going begging, I quickly dragged Sarah and Lord Bargain down from the vertigo-inducing second tier, and passed the tickets on. A significant result all round, which more than compensated for the earlier frustration of failing to offload the spare press ticket on any of my friends.

And let me tell you: front row seats at the Nottingham Royal Concert Hall are a trip and a half. With no security staff to get in the way, you're mere inches away from the stage itself, which is roughly at chest height (if you're tall like me), and hence so close that you practically feel like you're part of the show (if you're egotistical like me). The sound quality's not so great, as you're practically behind the main speakers, but the compensations are considerable.

(That Andy Bell, he couldn't keep his eyes off me. I sense a connection.)

See also: Sarah's photos from the concert (one of which can be seen above), Youtube videos from the Nottingham show (at which I can allegedly be seen bopping on the front row, but Sarah must have sharper eyes than me), my interviews with Andy Bell and Vince Clarke.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Piney Gir – Nottingham Social, August 14th 2007.

(This review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

It takes a brave act to tour the UK in the middle of August. It takes an even braver act to schedule the last date of their tour in a strange town on a Tuesday night, before an audience of just under thirty. And it takes an almost heroic act to play that date with a sunny good grace, seemingly untroubled by even the merest flicker of disappointment.

Piney Gir is a Kansas born singer, who moved to London in 1998. Originally an electro-pop act, she started performing her songs in a country style around four years ago, almost on a whim, and hasn’t looked back since.

Backed by a four piece band, and alternating between accordion and melodica, Piney’s stock in trade is a rambunctious “yee-haw” hoedown sound, its pedal steel twang balanced by a rockabilly stomp. It’s essentially good time party music, which needs a lively crowd in order to come into its own.

Without this suitably up-for-it atmosphere, the music was exposed as somewhat one-dimensional. Most songs were played at a similar rattling tempo, with little emotional range. By the end of the short set, what started as an affectionate tribute merely felt like shrill pastiche.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Twittering the Leicester Summer Sundae festival.

Feeling slightly amazed that I've already been up for 2 hours. On a Sunday morning.

Worrying about the weather.

Nipping round the Myspace pages of the acts which I haven't heard before. Hmm. Really wish the Hold Steady hadn't cancelled.

Heavy showers forecast. Packing lightweight waterproof, Gore-tex lined cap, fleece & mat into day-sack, along with optimistic sunglasses.

Still agonising about the one major clash in the Summer Sundae line-up: Fujiya & Miyagi versus Spoon. It's not easy having leftfield tastes.

Questioning the purpose of wearing my "lucky pants". (Olive green Aussie Bum, white piping, curiously flattering.) (TMI?) (TMI.)

Sunday drivers plus traffic jams equals missed train. It's only a 30 minute wait though. And chill...

The Lea Shores. Jesus fronted post baggy/shoegaze, Ride meets Roses. With violin.

And that was our first mention of the word "shine". With stuff like this, it's a statuory obligation.

Now rhyming flyyy, hiiigh and "you're my butterflyyy". Time to move on.

Vetiver: a perfect sunday lunchtime band. Nothing to disturb the Observer readers mooching on the grass.

Foxy busty blonde lady, to me and Dymbel: "I fancy you. And you. It's for a dare... but maybe I would have done anyway." Oh dear!

Packed tent for The Strange Death Of Liberal England, possibly benefiting from We've Not Heard Of Any Of These People, So Let's Go For The Ones With The Interesting Name Syndrome. Ooh, 10 out of 10 for youthful energy and exuberance...

Ben Taylor. Son of James. Similar lack of hair. Acoustic. Droll. Best so far.

Ben Taylor throwing out so many Myspace addresses that one wonders if he's on a Murdoch kickback...

Cherry Ghost: the word "solid" could have been invented for him. Overly precarious trousers for a man in his 30s. Not his "lucky pants", one feels. Earnest, mildly dishy supply teacher rock. All very 6music/word magazine. I'm not won over.

In the market area, resisting the urge for a Tracy from Big Brother makeover.

Stephanie Dosen: seen her before, supporting Tina Dico was it? Kooky and lugubrious. Cameron Diaz goes folk.

Koop: pleasant Gilles Peterson approved mellow jazzy funkiness. And still no rain! Result!

Mm, tinkly vibes. Rob is texting me crap jokes from the cabaret tent. I shan't share.

Koop remind me a little too much of my snotty soulboy acid jazz years. I'd have loved them in 1992.

And the vibes tinkle on. Not the most emotionally expressive of instruments, are they?

Spoon: again, solid. Better than Cherry Ghost, but I am unmoved. Dymbel loves 'em though. Shall try Fujiya & Miyaji instead.

Spoon were improving as I left. But Fujiya & Miyaji are more my thing. Funky krautrock from Brighton.

People are dancing! And about time too. Young people are holding up cardboard signs. FREE ANAL HERE! (plus arrow) and GET YOUR OWL OUT! Surreal...

Fujiya & Miyaji deffo the best yet. And now, the generic & wildly popular indie sounds of the Pigeon Detectives. Hmm, Johnny Borrell lite, anyone? Yes Virginia, there is such a thing.

Aw, I shouldn't be such an old curmudgeon. They're the right band at the right time and they're working it well. Cross generational respect!

Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals: performing solo inside a giant TV set, with cartoon test card. Experimental!

K is stuck on the phone with my aunt (a chatty woman), and sending increasingly angsty text messages.

Gruff Rhys now joined by lady singer inside TV set, both seated behind desk, news reader style. Oh, and now there's a band.

There's a bit of a lull, so I'm relaxing in the run with a beer. Nice day, if a little short on epochal, life changing music. Pleasant innocuous vibe.

Cheerfully ignoring Echo and his Bunny Men, to whom I fell asleep at the London Lyceum in 1980. 40-something blokes with eyes half shut are gyrating drunkenly in the evening sunshine.

Ok, The Cutter, I'll give them that. I was young once!

Polytechnic: competent guitar band, but I am developing indie indigestion. It's been a long day.

Oh! This one sounds like Los Campesinos: "You! Me! Dancing!" I can get behind this.

Spiritualized Acoustic Mainline. As my friend says, perhaps I've never taken the right drugs. That said, their symphonic lugubriousness is appropriately crepuscular.

Ah, me old mate Duke Special, headlining inside the De Montfort Hall. Nice to be on familiar ground. As cosy and comforting as a steaming mug of cocoa, and hence just what these aching old bones are in need of.

Duke Special was a lovely end to 10 hours of good, if not often great music... and my first festival to boot.

Searching in vain for meteor showers on the drive home. 45 degrees south, if you're looking...

See also: Lisa Rullsenberg's proper joined-up review of the same day. You know, with proper paragraphs and everything...

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Prince, London O2 Arena, Friday August 3.

(This article originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post. If you've been following Troubled Diva this week, then it contains little that you haven't heard before, so you are hereby excused from reading it. I just like parking these pieces for posterity, that's all.)

He may not have had a Top 20 hit since 1999 (and even that was a re-issue – no prizes for guessing which), but all of a sudden, Prince feels like a global superstar once more. Although each new album is routinely hailed as “a stunning return to form”, only to be forgotten a few weeks later, a cunning marketing ploy has ensured that Planet Earth, his most straightforwardly accessible release for years, has shipped over 2 million copies in the UK alone. OK, so it was given away free with a Sunday newspaper, but tough times call for desperate measures.

His profile duly raised, Prince has now installed himself at London’s O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) for the next couple of months, playing a series of 21 dates to crowds of 20,000 at a time. With the opening night of the season – a marathon, hit-packed extravaganza – instantly gaining ecstatic reviews from the national press, the Purple One’s re-ascendance to the major league already seemed complete.

However, second nights can sometimes tell quite a different story – and last Friday’s showing was a classic example of the dangers of promising too much, too soon.

As measured by the time between the first and the last notes played, Friday’s set clocked in respectably, at just under two hours. During that time, Prince himself was absent from the stage for at least thirty minutes, leaving his band to serve up an eclectic but pointless array of covers. One of them, a syrupy lounge-jazz rendering of What A Wonderful World, quickly turned into a mass stampede for the bar. This was good news for the large section of the crowd who seemed more interested in getting the beers in than focussing on the music.

Although billed as a “last ever chance” to hear Prince play his greatest hits, the show was noticeably short on crowd-pleasing classics. Of the twenty songs played, only seven had ever troubled the Top 20, and the gaps between them were sometimes dangerously long.

In their place, we had unloved recent album tracks (Satisfied, Lolita, Musicology), seldom heard fan favourites (Joy In Repetition, Anotherloverholenyohead), and a lengthy trudge through Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music, for which Prince forgot most of the words.

None of this was helped by the abysmal sound quality: booming, sludgy and echo-laden, with a general absence of top-end clarity. Neither was it helped by the seeming inability of the lighting crew to keep a spotlight trained on their star performer, frequently leaving him cavorting in the darkness.

Nevertheless, the evening was not without its highlights. Led by a stunningly tight four-piece brass section which included veteran James Brown sideman Maceo Parker, the band displayed all the stellar musicianship that you would expect from a Prince show, particularly during the funkier numbers such as Black Sweat and Controversy. A reworking of I Feel For You (as made famous by Chaka Khan) hit the spot with the crowd, as did the cheekily updated Kiss, which now proclaims that “You don’t have to watch Big Brother to have an attitude”. Songs from the Purple Rain soundtrack dominated the end of the set, with the sole selection from the new album saved for the final encore. It was a shrewd gamble, as the straight-up old-school rocker Guitar went down a storm, already sounding like a future classic.

Ultimately, the biggest let-down was the man himself. Although undeniably energetic, there was something essentially half-hearted about Prince’s performance, which displayed all the signs of Just Another Day At The Office Syndrome. For the second night of a two-month run, this did not bode well.

For the 2000-strong audience who hung around for the “Official Prince Aftershow Party” at the smaller Indigo2 venue next door, an even bigger disappointment was in store. After patiently waiting through a “surprise” 80-minute set from Dr John, who had played a scheduled show at the same venue earlier, the crowd were eventually shown the door at 3:30 am, Prince having apparently declared himself too tired to perform. The following night, he appeared on stage for just one number. At £27.50 a ticket for what amounted to a lottery – something that was not made clear at the time of booking – this was a rip-off on a grand scale, which left a sour taste at the end of a long and lacklustre night.

(Footnote, for the interested few who have made it this far: a detailed e-mail has been dispatched to O2 Customer Services, requesting a refund for the aftershow no-show. Click the comments for the full text. Interestingly enough, Prince might even have been in breach of contract for failing to appear...)

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Prince at the O2 Arena: The Great Funk & Soul Swindle, Part Two.

The 2000-odd capacity Indigo club - whoops, sorry, IndigO2, can't be missing a Brand Reinforcement Opportunity - is billed as the Arena's, ahem, "intimate space". And fair play to their design team: it's a swish-looking, well-appointed venue, which does its level best to make you forget that you're actually still trapped inside a corporate hell-hole in the middle of nowhere. OK, so some seats would have been a nice touch, but they were strictly reserved for the 75-quid-a-pop "VIP" crowd, separated off from the rest of us in their own dedicated balcony area.

But hey, we proles in the £27.50 (incl. booking fee) standing area - some of whom had been queuing for over an hour (but not us, diligent researchers that we are), only to discover that we all had equally good views of the stage anyway - didn't care about any of that. After all, we had gained admittance to the hallowed inner sanctum, and to the opportunity that some of us had been dreaming of for years: to see Prince in after-hours mode, kicking loose and jamming with his band, all in the name of pure musicianship rather than stadium show-boating. As I said before, these Prince after-shows are the stuff of legend.

The atmosphere in the Indigo2 was buzzing. On Wednesday night, the band had played for an hour and three quarters, with Prince joining them for lengthy sections. Sure, we didn't expect him to be on stage for the whole period. We knew that. There would probably be 30 or 40 minutes of warm-up first, that kind of thing.

For now, Prince's dedicated DJ was spinning a set of predominantly funky house over the superbly crisp and warm sound system, mixed with the occasional "special", such as an exclusive new mix of Sexy MF, cut up with samples from the C&C Music Factory's Gonna Make You Sweat. Chelsea Rodgers, my favourite track from the new album, got people smiling and even a few of us dancing. Not too much of a crush in front of the stage, plenty of people chilling out on the floor towards the back of the venue, saving their energy for later.

At around 1:15 - same time as Wednesday, nice bit of consistency there - the lights went down. "Please welcome, from New Orleans, Dr John and his band!"

Woah, tres tres cool! As the veteran New Orleans performer settled at his piano, leading his band through a delightfully rolling Iko Iko, the four of us exchanged grins, marvelling at our extra luck. Fancy Prince being able to land such an impressive special guest! That's influence for you.

(Well, how were we to know that Dr John had already played a scheduled concert at the same venue, earlier that evening? We can't all be experts.)

I wondered how the rest of the show would pan out. Dr John's band were over to the right side of the stage, with most of the left side left empty, including spare microphone and instrument stands, and even a spare keyboard. Presumably the John band would hand over to the Prince band at some stage, maybe with some combined jamming. Woah, a Prince and Dr John collaboration would be something special all right... we'd just have to wait and see.

Time passed. Dr John's old favourite Such A Night got an airing, but I didn't recognise much else. Actually, my attention was starting to wander. So far, so Jools Holland. We needed to step up a little.

My attention was wandering so much that I didn't particularly notice the stage hands clearing away some of the unused equipment on the left hand side, even as the band played on... although was it just me, or were they beginning to flag now? Did I detect an uncertainty, an awkwardness, a reticence to hog the whole show?

As one number finished, a figure in the wings made a motion to the band with his outstretched fingers. It looked like the international sign language for "five more minutes". Phew, and not before time.

A couple more numbers later, the same figure made the same hand signal. And was it just me, or was the end of each song being greeted by ever louder applause, as if to hasten the end of the set?

At around 2:30, after about an hour and a quarter on stage, Dr John finally called it a day, "so that Prince can come on and do his stuff". Big cheer. About bloody time and all! I noted with some amusement that Dr John hadn't played his best known song, Right Place, Wrong Time. That really would have been rubbing salt in the wound. Two chuffing thirty in the chuffing morning! Ee, the accommodations that we make for genius!

The curtains closed, and the music came on again. A notably less scintillating selection than last time, but we were barely concentrating. Although, hang about, did we really need to hear Chelsea Rodgers again? And why were they starting to focus more on Prince's biggest hits? What a strange way of building the mood for a jam session...

Time passed. A good forty-five minutes or so, I'd say. And then, a friendly word from a young guy who was just on his way back from the bar.

"Thought you might like to know. They've just told me at the bar that Prince left the building about 20 minutes ago. He's tired and he won't be playing."

Even as we began to process the news, the music started to fade and the house lights started to flicker on and off. No announcement, just a general numbed-out bemusement as word slowly began to spread. Nearly three chuffing thirty in the chuffing morning, over four and a half hours after our last sighting of the man, and now, NOW he deigns to tell us.

I stared at my £27.50 ticket again. "PRINCE AFTERSHOW", it said, in big capitals. By the exit door, a member of the Indigo2 staff was all placatory apologies, they weren't to know, he just upped and went, etc etc. And by the way, sir, you can't take that out with you. I handed him the flat dregs of my plastic mug of lager and stumbled out of the venue, still in a daze.

The reason that we bought the tickets in the first place? There was an item on Radio 4's Front Row, telling their listeners that Prince would be playing a late night set after each one of his 21 London dates.

Throughout the complete online ordering process, via the O2 website and Ticketmaster, at no point was it ever suggested that Prince might not play.

During the whole of that Friday night, not one announcement was made to that effect. Oh, of course, they never actually said that he would be playing, either. We were just rather led to assume that. Because, you know, who would pay £27.50 for a DJ, an act that we hadn't come to see (who was already in the venue anyway), no seats, no food, and the chance to buy the only alcohol left on sale for miles around?

As to how much money Prince himself will be earning from lending his name to this rather costly ongoing lottery (the following night, he joined his support act Nikka Costa on stage for just one number), one can only speculate.

Over on the main fan forum, the hardcore faithful had little sympathy for our collective plight. These aftershow no-shows are commonplace, apparently. It's all part of being a Prince fan, apparently. God, didn't we know that? This was an aftershow party, a chance for like-minded souls to hang out together and discuss the tour. If there was no atmosphere, that was our fault for not making an effort. In fact, it was probably our fault that Prince had decided not to play. Not enough dancing, everybody squashed in front of the stage, how uncouth! All those drunks, slumped on the floor, how disrespectful! How could he be expected to face that?

And, for heavens sakes, hadn't we read the posting on Prince's official site? (Posted on Monday July 30th, well after we had bought our tickets, but that's by the by.)
After each gig in London, walk over 2 the indigO2 (which will be renamed 3121 of course) 4 the official aftershow parties. This will be the white hot place 2 hang 4 those still in need of some serious grooves. Prince and the band are not guaranteed 2 per4m, but as we all know with these cats - xpect the unexpected.
Oh, it was unexpected, all right. Can't fault 'em on that one.

Over an hour into our homeward journey, at Toddington services on the M1, the four of us finally found somewhere that served food. Desultorily chowing down on my egg mayonnaise roll and smoothie (£6.48, plus a free apology from the cashier at the ruinous expense), a few yards away from the heap of prostrate bodies on the floor of the amusement arcade, I wondered whether, at that time of the morning, there was any more desolate place to be found in the British Isles. Cheers for that, Prince. Cheers for that, O2.

My final waking thought, as my head hit the pillow at 7:00 am: I am too old for this shit.

I mean to say. A well respected and much admired, nay loved, figure of immense cultural influence, who earned his reputation years ago but who has been coasting ever since, now well past his peak, teasing his remaining supporters with half-shows and no-shows, and arrogantly assuming that they will put up with whatever shit he deigns to throw at them? Whoever heard of such a thing?

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Prince at the O2 Arena: The Great Funk & Soul Swindle, Part One.

It was an ill-starred evening from the off. A section of the southbound M1 was officially closed, with an accident to the north of it causing traffic to crawl for miles before coming to a complete standstill. Fortunately, or so it seemed, we could see the standstill kicking in just beyond the last-but-one junction before the closure, allowing us to leave the motorway in the nick of time.

Less fortunately, the crawl continued, bumper-to-bumper solid, all the way into St. Albans, and through it, and out the other side again. By the time we hit the unexpectedly and blissfully empty M25, we had less than an hour to get from Hertfordshire to the O2 Arena in North Greenwich, in time for the predicted show-time of 20:30. I was already mentally preparing myself for missing the first thirty minutes of Prince's set. Not to worry, though; we also had tickets for the after-show, and so could expect many, many hours of music ahead of us. What was the odd half hour or so? A drop in the ocean.

At 20:25, we screeched into the O2 car park (advance cost: £22.30 including booking fee). By 20:45, we were in our seats, beers in hands. Given that our four-and-a-quarter hour journey had allowed us no time to stop for food, a liquid dinner (plus one banana each, smuggled through security by Dymbel) would have to suffice.

Three minutes later, the show began. Bless him for waiting for us. Our luck was changing. Smiles all round.

Just under two hours later, the band left the stage for the last time. During those two hours, Prince had been absent for the opening number, two lengthy instrumental interludes, two teasingly over-streched intervals between the two encores, and the first number of the first encore: a good 25 minutes, at the most conservative estimate.

Of the 20 songs performed, just 7 of Prince's 37 UK Top Thirty hits were represented: Cream, U Got The Look, Peach, Kiss, Purple Rain, Let's Go Crazy and Take Me With U, plus a spirited version of I Feel For You. Four other numbers were covers, with Prince performing on just one of them: a perfunctory slog through Wild Cherry's Play That Funky Music, for which he forgot nearly all the words.

The sound quality in the O2 Arena was abysmal: booming, sludgy and echo-laden, with a general absence of top-end clarity. However, our seats gave us a good overall view of the stage, which bore the shape of that funny little squiggle from the "Artist Formerly Known As" years. Although billed as an "in the round" show, the main performance area was the extended catwalk formed by the squiggle's downwards arrow, with additional curly runways running off to each side. However, for those of us who were seated at the top of the squiggle - a circular area, with the band seated in the middle - Prince's face-forward appearances were limited, and frustratingly brief. About once every ten or fifteen minutes, he would quickly trot round the uppermost circumference, barely pausing to acknowledge us. No matter; we had an excellent view of the screen, and much better all-round vision than the people down on the main floor. A shame, then, that the spot-lighting was so poorly arranged, with Prince all too often cavorting in near-darkness.

For a large chunk of the audience, getting the beers in seemed to be of equal importance to actually watching the show, with what amounted to a mass exodus during the first and longest of the instrumentals (Maceo Parker from James Brown's old band, parping his way at leisure through a languid and syrupy What A Wonderful World). The people directly behind us swiftly reached the Totally Shitfaced stage, but at least their noisiness was benign. (Elsewhere in the Arena, a spectacularly inebriated woman threw up over the backs of the people in front of her. We wuz lucky.)

Oh, but we mustn't grumble. The show had its moments, and the band were shit-hot - especially the four-piece brass troupe, as led by the aforementioned Mr. Parker, and especially during the set's "funk" section, with Black Sweat and Controversy scaling the very heights of tightness. For the diehard fans, following the seldom heard Joy In Repetition (from Graffiti Bridge) with Parade's Anotherloverholenyohead was altogether A Bit On The Special Side. For the more casual crowd, solid, bankable tracks from Purple Rain dominated the end of the show, and it was fun to hear an updated Kiss: "You don't have to watch Big Brother, to have an attitude..."

Only one track - the straightforward old-school rocker Guitar - was performed from the new album, copies of which were handed out to everyone who entered the arena, just in case our ideological scruples had prevented us from picking it up with the Mail On Sunday a couple of weeks earlier. Hearteningly, it turned out to be one of the strongest and best received performances of the night, already sounding like a bona fide hit in its own right. Saving it up for the last song of the last encore was a bold but justified move.

But oh dear, what a pointless palaver those encores turned out to be. We already knew that on the opening night of his 21-date run, two days earlier, Prince had fooled half the crowd by waiting until the house lights were up and the venue emptying, before dashing back on stage for a seemingly impromptu third encore. So we weren't about to be fooled again. A stand-off ensued, with absolutely no-one budging, even though the house lights had been on for ages. And yes, oh GOODNESS what a shock, back on he bounded, for a repeat version of the same stunt. Which of course meant that we certainly weren't going anywhere after the next exit. After all, there had been three encores on Wednesday, with nearly two and a half hours of playing time, so surely he wasn't going to call it a night after two encores and less than two hours?

No such luck. After another expectant stand-off, during which we noticed our nearest camera operator patiently sitting tight and checking his text messages (so THAT was a sign, right?), a tannoy announcement was made, asking us to clear the venue. Which of course prompted a certain measure of booing. Oops. It was a ragged end to what had sometimes felt like a ragged, under-powered and half-hearted performance. Two dates into the run, wasn't it a little early for Just Another Day At The Office Syndrome to be kicking in?

Despite being urged, via a special reminder e-mail, to "hang out" in the O2 after the show, the crushing reality was that, at a couple of minutes before 11pm, seemingly all of the venue's food and drink outlets were closing for the night. If there was a funky little after-hours joint to be found in this gargantuan, antiseptic Branding Opportunity of a venue, with its faintly menacing air of regimented slickness, then we certainly didn't stumble across it. Back to the car park we trudged, vainly casting around for non-existent burger vans, for the only sit-down we were likely to find between now and the after-show party, queues for which were already stretching far outside the building.

Ah, the after-show party. The anticipatory buzz was palpable, even in these corporate hell-hole surroundings. Prince's after-show sets are the stuff of legend, after all. Our night of mixed fortunes was about to get very special indeed. Of that at least, we had no doubt.

Jump straight to Part Two.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

The Gossip, Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday July 11.

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.)

One of the more perplexing musical trends of the past few years has been the rise of the band with no bass guitar. White Stripes, Black Keys, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and now The Gossip: all of them have elected to survive on the sound of voice, lead guitar and drums alone. It’s a bold and uncompromising move, and yet not without its drawbacks. For when all is said and done, rock music – and especially live rock music – needs bass. It’s as simple and as inescapable as that.

That said, guitarist Brace Paine did an admirable and at times uncanny job at fleshing out the band’s sound. More often than not, he had the knack of simultaneously combining lead guitar riffs with funky basslines, in a way that left you wondering just how it was done.

Given such a minimalist backing, the vocalist’s job is rendered all the more difficult, and in many respects Beth Ditto rose to the challenge admirably. Beneath the fashionable punk-funk trappings and the in-your-face attitude, she has the voice of a classic blues-rock shouter. Lurching around the stage in her lemon yellow mini-dress, she may have given the impression of barely controlled chaos – but the delivery remained gloriously pitch-perfect throughout.

Perhaps the biggest problem lay with the band’s material, which essentially consisted of minor variations on the theme of their breakthrough hit (and instant classic) Standing In The Way Of Control. Unless you were intimately familiar with the songs – and plenty were – there was something inescapably one-dimensional about their sound. It was telling that, despite having three albums under their belts, the set only clocked in at a miserly fifty-five minutes, including the encore. Perhaps such a tightly restricted range simply couldn’t have been sustained for longer.

(My interview with Brace and Hannah from The Gossip will be appearing here in the next few days.)

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